Images and text by David Saveliev
The air above Des Champs-Élysées is vibrating.
The twilight above the Arc de Triomphe is menacing, looming over the thickening crowd. Protesters begin to light flares, as if to ward off the angry sky.
Their ominous, angry chants meld into a deafening clatter. At first, the volume of the crowd reigns supreme — only to be beaten by the shattering blast of stun grenades. Like thunder, the blasts rumble almost every 30 seconds, followed by screams of anger — and cries of pain.
Des Gilles Jaunes, or the “Yellow Vests,” erupted in protest spontaneously, like a tsunami. President Emmanuel Macron had attempted to combat climate change by imposing a tax on gas, in turn causing fuel prices to skyrocket. This not only meant that it would be harder for people to commute, but also that heating prices would go up- right in the middle of winter, too. Grassroots protests, with loose or no leadership, coordinated through social media erupted across France, culminating in the Hugoian standoff between police and the angry mob. The Yellow Vests took their name from the garb mandatory for taxi drivers in France, since the drivers were the most impacted demographic. The riot brought Paris to its knees: Des Gilles Jaunes strategically targeted the most iconic places throughout the city to get as much visibility as possible — places such as the Arc de Triomphe.
In order to reach the Arc, I have to show my identification to a gendarme, who lets me through a giant cordone of police cars, and menacing silhouettes doning riot gear. The guard shakes his head in disapproval, exclaiming “Don’t! Dangerous!” in his strong French accent. But despite his intimidating appearance, his face displays a mixture of anger and fear. I do not heed his warning- I start walking towards the protest.
The mood changes drastically the moment that I walk through the cordone. I leave the world of fear and anger emanating from Parisian gendarmerie and enter a realm of music, smiles, and the occasional smell of marijuana. One Yellow Vest blasts Gangsta’s Paradise from a portable speaker, while other protesters dance around him, empty shells from smoke grenades cracking underneath their feet.
“Unity through rage” has been the underlying theme of the protests. Under the collective umbrella of Des Gilles Jaunes, the far right, far left, workers, liberals, and students unite in a single, enormous movement.
President Macron had been the poster boy of Western liberal democracies. Now that poster has gone up in flames. When he seemingly destroyed LePenn’s right wing populist movement in his electoral victory, many cheered and supported him. He was initially seen as evidence that Western democracies can overcome the populist crisis gripping them. Yet, in the new world of upheaval and radicalism, Macron’s centrism appears to the disgruntled French to be a form of elitism and general disregard for their dignity. When he effectively slashed taxes for the wealthy by 70 percent, Macron became the “president of the rich.”
— President of rich? Non, non, non! President of very rich! — a Yellow Vest yells at me when I ask him about Macron.
“I can’t live. I can’t live with this tax!” he says. He’s thin, exhausted- but his eyes burn with determination.
I move under the Arc de Triomphe and the mood changes once more. The protesters have become agitated, but are collected. The people fly flags and begin to chant while igniting flares. They are militant, ready for the gendarmes’ offensives. The eternal fire on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier begins to tremble. Several Yellow Vests stand around the barriers, guarding the fire from any overly agitated individuals. The media will later go on to claim that the protesters overthrew the barriers in order to take selfies with the fire.
The French government and pro-government media launched a slanderous campaign against the protesters, claiming that the protests were hijacked by the alt-right, that the protesters were and are violent thugs and looters. However, Des Gilles Jaunes are such a loose group that it’s hard to say with any degree of certainty what their politics are. Several different lists of their demands claim to be a result of the group’s various, and often contradictory, viewpoints; most of these demands, however, lean left on economic issues. Most of the protesters’ spokespeople are conservative, but the main body of protesters never took much interest in politics before. In their core, the protests are not politicised, — this is a working-class protest of the disgruntled workers angry at the status quo. The left, picky as always, are reluctant to join with the Des Gilles Jaunes, who fly the national flag and sing La Marseillaise- a leftist taboo, due to these symbols’ past colonial and Nazi associations. The right, on the other hand, are ready to join any movement that lets them in. But all in all, most political factions in France are scrambling to get on the Des Gilles Jaunes bandwagon, which makes it hard to tell if the movement has any cohesive political agenda.
As to the violence and looting, yes, a great deal of that was happening; but the violence from the police, who used tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and water cannons, seemed to provoke more violence on the protesters’ side. It seemed to me that violence from the French state only brought these protesters closer in unity.
A mighty chorus floats through the Parisian air, rising to the Arc’s dome: “Aux armes, citoyens!”– it’s La Marseillaise, the old chant of soldiers and revolutionaries, uniting the crowd. They sing in defiance of the thunder of stun grenades, raising their voices to drown out the explosions. Moved by the song, a group of people make their way from underneath the Arc to the front lines of the protest, where protesters have begun to clash with the police.
I follow them.
We walk into a tumultuous ocean of people: the entire square is packed with angry, yelling Yellow Vests. Smoke from the flares, tinted red and blue by police lights, makes the square look and smell as though the city has gone up in flames. I walk forward, propelled by the screams, the blasts, the chanting. I draw to a halt, though, when I realize that I’m not wearing any protective gear.
I’ve made a good decision, too- a few flares rise to the sky like fiery comets: the wind begins to blow and a few moments later a pungent veil of tear gas reaches my face.
Enraged by the actions of the police, the Yellow Vests continue protesting even after Macron backed down on the fuel tax. This actions shows a dangerous pattern for united Europe. In the two remaining hegemonies of the EU, the working class people are disgruntled with their governments. Both the French protests (which aren’t at all limited to the Yellow Vests) and the German protests show an extreme dissatisfaction with the status quo. In these times with occurrences such as Brexit, populists in power in Italy and Hungary, the precipitous processes in Poland, and the Greek crisis, the EU looks like it’s going through a radical shakedown. Macron was prophethised as a new leader of the European Union- but his people were not so happy with him: many demand his resignation, “Frexit”, and the closing of borders. Similar things are happening in Germany, and these sentiments are echoing all across the whole of the European Union.
The liberal globalist order, carefully built in the EU, is bulging at its seams, continually failing to satisfy its citizens. Populists of all kinds are ready to seize any opportunities for power- and the opportunities are ripe for the taking. No one can predict what will happen — the EU will either find a new, stronger leadership, or it will lose most of its power, and potentially collapse under the weight of the people’s anger.
A man in front of me holding a large “Frexit” sign panics, and starts rubbing his eyes, screaming in pain. I hurriedly wrap my scarf around my mouth and run back to the the Arc, but the gas overtakes me. People swear, scream, run. Some panic. Tear gas is harmless, but it’s a tremendous psychological weapon. Many are wearing gas masks, and they sprint towards the frontal clashes in an intimidating display. I run away, trying to calm my breathing and keep my eyes open so that my tears wash the gas away. It feels like someone sprayed has my face with acid. My scarf quickly fails to protect me. I have to try as hard as I can to resist rubbing my face, further agitating it. I am nearly blind with tears, and I find a spot away from the heavy veil of tear gas, where I crouch and wait until my eyes and breathing return to normal.
Around me are the gassed French people. Some were here for the thrills. Others came simply because they couldn’t afford to live on the new tax. Others hated Macron. But all of them are now united, equally angry at their government. Five more times I get up to walk around and talk to the people in an uncertain mix of English and French. Five more times I get up- and five more times I am gassed, forced to run away alongside choking and crying protesters.
These protests are, however, emblematic of an even bigger problem than the crisis of the lack trust in European politicians. At this point it’s obvious that climate change is real, no matter what President Trump says. Despite the catastrophic results of Macron’s policy, at its core is a reasonable goal of combating climate change which, if left unchecked, might drastically damage humankind as we know it. The problem is that since climate change was left unchecked for far too long, humanity is at a point where any meaningful anti-climate change policy will bring a lot of pain to average people. Cheap plastics, cheap fuel, red meat. Many of us can’t imagine life without them. Giving up fossil fuels for most of humanity will be just as hard as giving up the needle for a heroin addict. If governments around the world were to start paying more attention to the needs of future generations, the current generation will likely riot more in a tsunami of social unrest, due to the strenuous burden.
The gendarmes slowly advance onto the Arc, gaining ground every time the gas pushes the protesters away. During the last gas attack I hesitate to take more pictures of the chaos.
This is a mistake.
Suddenly I find myself in the zone right between the retreating protesters and the advancing gendarmes. The few people around me are crouching, choking from the tear gas, some lying low to tend to injuries. Through the veil, I manage to make out the menacing dark silhouette of the gendarmes. Under the pitch-black night sky, the hellish scene is illuminated in bloody red by a lone flare, dropped by a fleeing protester.
Suddenly, I hear a rapid sequence of relatively quiet pops.
The thought rings throughout my mind, but I’m already on the run. I cover my head, crouching and running from cover to cover, hoping that I’m wrong- and if not, that I won’t be shot in the head. I can’t calm my breathing anymore, and I breathe in lungfuls of gas.
I run off to a deserted street- the protesters are gone. The only sources of light are a couple of streetlights and a motorbike. The motorbike is on fire. It’s burning brightly, producing an immense amount of smoke, as if whoever was setting it on fire wanted to say screw air pollution, I just want to see the world burn.
A gang of people, no yellow vests on them, their faces hidden, are spray painting “fuck the police” on a clothing store display. One of them stops, and poses proudly for me. The others don’t seem to be as welcoming, so I walk away as quickly as possible.
As I walk to a safer street, I see a group of people who are walking away from the protest. Victorious, laughing, drunk on their youth and rage (and perhaps something else, too), they’re singing La Marseillaise.
A song from Les Miserables floats into my head, and I begin to hum it.
Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men?
France, Europe, and the rest of the world most certainly do.
The author at the scene of the protests
David Saveliev is the CEO of Realist Review. He is studying International Relations, Film, and Business in the Johns Hopkins University. His accomplishments include Woodrow Wilson fellowship and being a YoungArts cinematic finalist. He enjoys making art, reading and traveling. David is currently working on a documentary about the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. His interests are Great Power politics, Eastern Europe, war and all other things weird and dangerous. David founded Realist Review because he wants to play his part in changing foreign policy discourse towards realism and restraint.