‘It ain’t over till it’s over.’

Rumours of the gilets jaunes demise continue to be exaggerated

Long before Lenny Kravitz beautifully warbled it, baseballer ‘Yogi’ Berra coined it. [He of such other eternal truths as: ‘It’s like deja-vu all over again’ or ‘Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t go to yours.’]

News of the overness of the gilets jaunes‘ movement is premature. Deputy Head(s) is/are a-rolling. More may be a-coming. But it ain’t over.

Numbers participating in Saturday’s gilets jaunes demonstrations on France’s streets waned for three successive weeks. 

The Interior Ministry announced 39,000 for 2 March, with 4,000 in both Paris and Bordeaux. 8,000 down from the previous week overall. Then it was down once again (9 March) to an historic [isn’t that ‘n’ so pernickety and finicky? really annoying!] all-time-low-turnout of 29,000. On 17 November, last year, all of 280,000 gathered for that first Saturday’s events. [Editorial reminder: dramatically higher numbers are always available from gilets jaunes sources.]

But last Saturday (16 March) was the coincidence of

  • The Movement’s 4 months’ anniversary, and
  • the close of the President’s Grand Débat National, long denounced by yellow-vested-unbelievers as ‘farce’ and ‘publicity campaign’.

Even middle-distance observers, like yours truly, discerned calls for 16 March to witness a mighty re-mobilisation.

Certainly, Eric Drouet tried ramping up the tension. Drouet has been a leading non-leader of the gilets jaunessince the movement’s birth, with his La France en Colère!!! Facebook page [uneasy lies any gilets jaunes head that wears anything resembling something crown-like].

Currently, Drouet awaits judgement on the demand for a month’s suspended prison, plus €500 fine, for organising unauthorised demonstrations, with a future Court appearance for ‘weapon-carrying’. Showing his disdain for Matters Legal, Drouet had issued a video addressed to the President. He announced ‘the end of pacificism’ in a ‘war of attrition’. He wrote: ‘A really big 16 March is coming, more organised than ever, more motivated than ever, with lots of regions and countries ready to get to Paris. I hope you [Macron] are ready. We are. We’re impatiently awaiting the day.’

Alternative gilets jaunes non-leader, Priscillia Ludosky (she of the original online petition against rising fuel prices, another Founding Act of The Movement) called for a Paris sit-in. She wanted to ‘instal our roundabouts in the heart of the capital’, to ‘besiege’ Paris and present demands emerging from the gilets jaunes ‘Real Debate’ (an alternative to the Government’s Great National Debate). Ludosky supported a non-violent sit-in on the Champ de Mars open space, near the Eiffel Tower … but a handful of demonstrators who turned up were soon turned off by the police.

Saturday 16 March – Acte XVIII of a never-ending drama

The number of demonstrators over France as a whole was marginally up. The Interior Ministry said 32,300 demonstrated overall, with 10,000 in Paris (it’s near-worthless information that the gilets jaunes claimed 230,766 on Facebook). Yet the day will be remembered for still further signs of the radicalisation of those seeking a violent day out. The authorities said there were 1,500 determined and violent individuals. True. And many were dressed in black, hooded or helmeted. 

Paris witnessed scenes of mindless destruction. It looked like a riot. And the police weren’t much inclined to intervene. By good fortune, injuries were relatively low on a day when ‘symbols of capitalism’ were regularly attacked. Much damage was certainly caused by anarchist black blocs. But it’s too facile to claim it’s nothing but angry anarchists. People from many backgrounds came ‘armed’ for trouble. Many set on a destructive spree in and around the Champs Elysées. Over 80 shops, restaurants and banks were attacked. But really attacked. For good measure, anarchist graffiti was scrawled on the plaque commemorating the police officer murdered by a terrorist on the Champs Elysées.

This was, effectively, close to the total loss of ‘control’ of the streets which occurred on 1 December when the Arc de Triomphe was attacked. A bank was set alight, and a mother and baby were rescued from an upper floor

Historic brasserie Fouquet’s was ransacked and set alight. That was where Sarkozy went to celebrate his Presidential victory … and then never escaped, throughout his Presidential term, that lasting image of upper class bling. A demonstrator was quoted: ‘We break their windows, they break our lives’.

Four of Paris’s emblematic newspaper kiosks – which, over 4 months, had suffered nothing worse than their windows being broken – were torched. Destroy the press?

The BBC put together some striking pictures: they’re here. And it’s well worth clicking on the film at the end of the BBC’s piece. This seems to show a police officer stuffing PSG football shirts in his rucksack … until the man filming has to stop when apparently set upon by other officers.

Much is in the images … and the timing

News (and sort-of-pictures) of the President on a weekend Pyrenees ski-trip (after returning from Kenya) were not brilliantly-timed. To make things worse, according to Le Monde, the security services had earlier warned of serious trouble this Saturday.

Images of a beaming Emmanuel Macron in the mountains, dark-glassed and sun-drenched, sat uneasily with images of Paris burning. The fact that this pic below may (?) have been the one real picture of the Presidential Pyrennean sortie hasn’t troubled many. The regional paper tweeted this:

Then we had another photo. That was the one that appeared in almost every paper. Paris Match said the pic was taken on 15 March 2019. FranceInfo said it was last December. Someone’s telling porkies. Either way the Image Damage went well and truly viral.

The Presidential Relax was quickly cut short. Rushing Paris-wards, he tweeted: ‘What happened today is nothing to do with demonstrating. These are people who want to destroy the Republic and risk killing people.’ True … but there’s still more to it.

Action Now … with Lots More Action Than The Previous Action

Stronger measures were in the air. They weren’t long a-coming. And they were helpfully accompanied by a symbolic execution. Official Fall-Guy, Paris Chief of Police, Delpuech: off with his head. Really a bit more than a Deputy Head. He’s been moved for ‘allowing’ Saturday’s chaos. 

And all this even before The Government’s most recent Anti-Vandalising-Rioters Law (anti-casseurs) could actually take effect.

That Law got its final Parliamentary approval a week ago. Passed by 210 to 115 votes, with 18 abstentions. [Question: WHAT WERE THE OTHER 234 DEPUTIES DOING? Almost enough to make one believe some of that gilets jaunes talk about Deputies not doing a full-time job.] 

However, before the Law can take effect – with its preventive bans on individuals demonstrating and banning face-coverings at demonstrations – the Constitutional Court will opine. Both the President and the Parliamentary Left Non-Opposition alike have asked the Court to review the Law. It’s a smart, though highly unusual, Presidential move to seek the Court’s approval. At least Emmanuel Macron’s initiative will have discouraged the President’s 50 or so Potentially Revolting Deputies taking still further steps to show their dislike for this possibly-anti-constitutional Law [50 of his Deputies had earlier abstained in an unprecedented show of organised rebellion muttering that the provisions were too anti-civil liberties].

But all that’s far from enough. The President demanded ACTION. A sacrificial Top Cop is insufficient.

Within a couple of days a sober-faced Prime Minister, flanked by possibly still more sober-faced Interior and Justice Ministers, announced further action.

The police will

  • have the right to ban demonstrations in certain high-profile locations, whenever extremists are present who may (?) set about causing damage
  • increase their use of drones for filming
  • be able to UV spray people with a substance which remains for 4 weeks
  • have greater autonomy to respond to events as they see fit
  • be able to freely use those riot control weapons which have already injured so many [the PM said ‘inappropriate orders’ had been given to reduce their usage; the use of less powerful bullets had been decided last Saturday. ‘We will reinforce the firmness of our intention to maintain order’ said the PM] – let’s hope the hospitals have access to extra Saturday staff

and, to cap it all, the fine for taking part in an unauthorised demonstration will be upped from €38 (cheap at the price) to €138.

The Right Complains (as ever) – but few are listening

In the wake of the Paris (near-)riots, right-wing Républicains Party leader, Wauquiez, demanded: ‘It is time to react. It’s time to act.’

[However over the weekend, in Lyon, Wauquiez addressed his Party’s National Council on the future of Europe. There he sounded off to his ‘faithful’ on his much-preferred issue: ‘Yes. Europe has Christian roots. We mustn’t be afraid to say that. Let’s put an end to this endless repentance. A church and a crib are symbols of what we are.’ All that will certainly help, he said, ‘build a future for our European civilisation’. Cautioning against ‘under-estimating the Islamist menace’, Wauquiez said ‘They want to destroy what we stand for’. He urged that we ‘defend our way of life.’]

Meanwhile … elsewhere in Paris

And all the while the mayhem raged in, and around, the Champs Elysées, a couple of kilometres away people were marching for climate and social justice in the ‘March of the Century’. There were, I think, no arrests. There was no trouble. Their voices may have been heard. Will there be the same urgency to respond? Of course not. The police said 36,000 marched in Paris – that’s more than the entire number of Saturday’s gilet jaunes. The Interior Ministry said 145,000 marched over France as a whole. Government, alas, will ‘ignore’ them and their demands. And thus I glancingly refer to the march.

‘The only mark they’re currently leaving is that of repeated violence’ (Christophe Castaner, Interior Minister)

Interior Minister Castaner tried putting the gilets jaunes movement in context on public TV’s France2 some days back. Downplaying the number of demonstrators who turned out each week, he said: ‘[The gilets jaunes] must ask themselves a simple question: What’s the legacy they want to leave? It’s been an extraordinary social movement … The only mark they’re currently leaving is that of repeated violence.’

Ministers object increasingly vigorously to references to police violence. Interior Minister Castaner said he’d never seen a police officer attack a demonstrator.

But wait. Regardless what possible provocations may have led to this scene, the police officer in this film, beating a demonstrator in Quimper leaves deep scars. Wait for 24 seconds. Viewed on social media 700,000 times, this behaviour has to be part of the reason why it ain’t over:

Dufresne continues to put on his Twitter feed shocking evidence of injuries suffered by demonstrators – while calling out the Interior Ministry (they’re based in Place Beauvau). As you can see, this one’s N° 513. Click on the link and scroll down for a couple of minutes. Then pause for thought on the exercise of the rule of law.

Castaner – and it would surely have happened to any Interior Minister – is the man who’s effortlessly risen to become Public Enemy N° 2 in the gilets jaunes demonology. He’s not too far behind the President.

And (back to images again) pictures of Castaner two Saturdays ago, in a Paris night club at 2am, gulping shots and wrapping himself about a former aide appeared in real time on social media, and later in celebrity magazines Voici and Closer. Definitely not what The Hammer of the Gilets Jaunes (long married, two children) needed right now.  

I’m not alone in thinking it ain’t over

Even while numbers of gilets jaunes on the streets were dropping, support for this movement (originally born from an identified loss of purchasing power) has definitely not disappeared. Pollster Elabe today finds 53% either support, or have sympathy for, the movement, down 8 points in a week. Those ‘opposed’ (16% +1) and ‘hostile’ (19% +6) to the movement remain around a third of the nation.

84% condemn the violence. 70% say that the movement has moved away from its original demands. 

But, despite everything, there’s still majority ‘support’.

Even after last Saturday. After 4 months of Saturdays. Doesn’t that show the depth of feeling that Macron cheer-leaders like The Economist‘s Pedder seem purblind to? Is something transformative going on out there?

A Long History of the Gilets Jaunes

For those with time on their hands – plus a desire to contextualise many themes which have emerged over the last 4 months – there’s a great overview in this 8,300 word piece (‘Among the Gilets Jaunes‘) by Jeremy Harding from the London Review of Books. It’s well worth ‘registering’ with the LRB, if you’re a cheapskate like me, to get to read occasional articles treating subjects in serious depth.





One thought on “‘It ain’t over till it’s over.’

  1. Another very insightful and well researched piece. Thank you for the LRB link, which is new to me but which will serve me well I’m sure. Personally I’m struggling to follow the logic of the continuing ‘giles jaunes’ protests, particularly in light of the mindless and seemingly endless capacity for destruction and pillaging of a minority of the demonstrators. In this I suspect that I’m not alone.
    The ongoing saga of the repercussions of the tragic ‘Bloody Sunday’events of 1972, recently in the news again, serve as a reminder of the physical dangers of violent protests to protesters and peace-keepers alike. What starts as a peaceful movement can degenerate very quickly, and it does indeed take two to tango.
    On the subject of Sophie Pedder (the ‘Macron cheerleader’ above) I have one of her books called ‘Le déni français, les deniers infants gâtés de l’Europe’, which I found quite interesting. I will pass this to you if you’re short of reading, which is hardly likely I admit.


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