‘Round Four’: Paris Braces for New Yellow Vest Protests
Posted December 7, 2018 4:27 p.m. EST
PARIS — Paris braced for a fourth weekend of protests as the government warned of the potential for new violence and officials prepared to deploy tens of thousands of police officers throughout France and even armored vehicles in the capital.
The original "Yellow Vest" protests were dominated by working-class people from the provinces upset over a gasoline tax increase and their declining living standards. They adopted fluorescent roadside safety vests as their signature, symbolizing their economic distress.
But officials fear the protests have been co-opted by far more violent elements taking advantage of the insurrectional climate and that “Round 4,” as Saturday’s demonstrations are being called, could be more violent than ever.
Last weekend’s demonstrations already led to some of the worst urban violence in France since the May 1968 uprising and were marked by skirmishes between stone-throwing protesters and police officers firing tear-gas, shattered store windows, burning cars and looting.
A palpable nervousness hung over Paris on Friday, with normally busy streets emptying of traffic by midday and residents of the wealthy 1st, 8th and 16th arrondissements that were the targets of last week’s violence vowing to leave town for the weekend.
“Looking back, I’m afraid for my family,” said Laurent Gaisne, an executive who lives on the chic Avenue Foch and who watched demonstrators turn over cars and burn them last Saturday. “They’re against the system in general.”
Who exactly was behind last week’s violence has been a matter of intense speculation, with elements from the far right, far left, and some Yellow Vests implicated, but no one group definitively accused.
Residents on the hard-hit Avenue Kléber, a posh street of banks, luxury hotels and grand old apartment buildings, showed pictures of groups clad in yellow vests attacking cars.
But as several pointed out, it is easy for anyone to don a yellow vest, including the professional vandals called “casseurs,” or breakers, by the French.
“You can’t tell who is who,” said Zahed Quaraishi, an English banker who lives on the Avenue Kléber. He watched from his balcony last Saturday as a gang destroyed his car with crowbars. “I came down to try to move it, but there were whole groups of them,” he said. He watched the mobs burn other cars as well. This weekend, he is leaving town.
The French interior minister, Christophe Castaner, warned of more, and potentially worse, violence this weekend. “Everything makes us think that radical elements, anti-state dissidents, will once again try to mobilize,” he said at a news conference Friday.
While the number of demonstrators is expected to be smaller than on previous weekends, “within that group, there are ultraviolent people,” Castaner said. He added that the Yellow Vests “have given birth to a monster that has escaped from its progenitors” and that there are “groups of extremists who dream of making the Republic tremble.”
One Yellow Vest spokesman on Friday called on movement supporters to avoid Paris.
All over central Paris on Friday, banks — a target of last week’s violence — put plywood over windows to a chorus of buzzsaws. On Avenue Kléber bank after bank had been smashed.
Businesses throughout the center prepared to shut for the day on Saturday. Cafes and brasseries closed. Nothing is to remain open on the Champs-Élysées, site of the biggest mobilizations of demonstrators, or on adjacent streets, by order of the Paris police. Museums and leading monuments will be closed, as well as the city’s department stores.
Saturday’s security apparatus will be “large scale” Castaner promised, with some 89,000 police officers deployed, 8,000 in Paris alone, nearly double the number from last week.
President Emmanuel Macron himself has remained silent, a strategy criticized by the opposition. But the unease of his government was evident in the public statements of other officials in recent days.
Prime Minister Édouard Philippe went over the signs of radicalization on French television Thursday night, in a worried tone.
“When you hear somebody say, ‘We’ll march on the Élysée,’” — the seat of the French presidency — “you know what that means,” Philippe said, referring to a statement this week by one of the Yellow Vest founding fathers, Eric Drouet. He is now the subject of a criminal investigation for it.
Philippe also cited as an example of radicalization the firebombing of the prefecture, the chief administrative building, in the provincial capital of Puy-en-Velay, with civil servants still inside, while some in the crowd yelled that they would “roast like pigs,” in echoes of the French Revolution of 1789.
Macron, visiting the burned-out building, was booed on Tuesday. His prime minister felt called on to declare on television that the “Republic is solid.” But he did not sound so sure.
Macron’s resignation has become a rallying cry for the protesters. While that scenario is widely dismissed as implausible by commentators and members of his own party, most agreed that this weekend could be critical for the future of his presidency.
If there is widespread violence, his stature, already shaken, will be further weakened and his pro-business reform agenda put in serious jeopardy.
The course of preceding popular uprisings in French history may be against him. These have had a tendency to become progressively more radical, with the Revolution of 1789 the prime example. And with much of the anger focused on Macron himself, he has become both the target and symbol of anger, much like Louis XVI during the Revolution.
“He is the emblematic example of the personalization of power,” said Marc Lazar, a professor at Sciences Po, one of France’s top academic institutions.
“He has become the incarnation of someone to hate,” Lazar said. “Very frankly, I don’t know how he is going to get out of it.” Around the Avenue Kléber there was a mix of fear, resignation and anger at being targeted, and halting recognition of the protesters’ claims.
“We’re really scared,” said Muriel Cohen, who works in real estate with her husband, and was bringing groceries into her building on the Avenue Kléber. “It was absolutely awful last weekend,” said Cohen, who watched as her car was burned.
“Still, I feel badly for them,” she said of the protesters. “And they are holding us somehow responsible. But it’s actually quite hard for us in this neighborhood,” Cohen said. “And really it’s the government that’s responsible. They’ve kept unemployment high. And everybody’s become very lazy. You’ve got to give them back the taste for work. I’m just sorry, though, that they are the victims of unequal distribution.”
Gaisne, the executive who lives on Avenue Foch, said he had been insulted by the mob last Saturday when he stepped out. “They yelled, ‘Go home, bourgeois!,’” he recalled, and had employed the insulting second person singular, generally used only for intimates or children. “They wanted to beat up on the rich.”