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Tourists and Anarchists Share Precarious Paris

November 16th, 2019 · No Comments · France, Paris

Protests across France, and particularly in Paris, were the topic of the day on news channels.

If Paris has seemed like a weekend battle zone for the past year … well, it often has been.

It was 52 weeks ago that a grass-roots movement erupted across many areas of France, and especially in Paris, that led to arrests, injuries and plenty of destruction, most of it aimed at police and property.

A loose confederation of Frenchmen, one in which anyone who claimed to speak for the group was immediately ostracized, nearly brought the country to its knees a year ago with attacks against toll booths and road blockades, especially at roundabout traffic choke points.

It was never quite certain where the group would strike, but it soon had a name: The Gilets Jaunes — the Yellow Vests, in English — referring to the high-visibility vests many of the protesters wore.

We took the train up to Paris today for the 50th birthday party of a friend and former colleague, and it was a strange few hours as we walked around the city and went from districts of tourist-driven energy and gawking … and at other times almost into the middle of clashes between massed police and demonstrators, who seem to become more destructive as the past year went on.

An example:

We saw that police were trying to defend the monument to the Bastille, flashpoint of the 1789 Revolution, as protestors pushed forward, throwing missiles and taunting police.

We had just arrived by train at the Gare de Lyon, and during the walk to the hotel we could see the vapor of police-wielded tear gas rising into the air.

We took a wide loop around the Bastille, to avoid the armored police and the clash with the often masked protestors. As we approached the Bastille, which stands in the middle of a roundabout, a half-dozen middle-aged men asked us if we knew where we were walking.

“There is tear gas up there,” one of them said.

I have no interest in inhaling tear gas, so our loop of the clash got even bigger. And just a few blocks away, citizens and visitors were doing what they normally do, with only the sound of nearby police sirens reminding us that this was not a bucolic Saturday afternoon.

It was a little discombobulating. Turn a corner, find cops with a young man pressed against a wall (more than 100 arrests were made) … and then walk on, as if nothing happened.

As is often the case in modern grass-roots movements, the Gilets Jaunes seem to have become a convenient screen for truly dangerous political figures, anarchists, many of them, who are known in French as casseurs — “people who break things”.

These masked men like nothing better than to disguise themselves in black and throw a rock in a shop window or set a dozen Dumpsters on fires.

The anarchists/casseurs are more violent than the often middle-aged Gilets Jaunes and use the latter as a screen they can hide behind.

The most memorable moment of casseur violence and destruction was when they massed at the Arc d’Triomphe last year to trash one of France’s iconic structures, dedicated to French military glory over the previous three centuries.

France is undergoing many of the same economic and workplace upheavals as Chile and Ecaudaor, for example. Its own under-pressure middle-class seems to feel overlooked and forgotten by the elite.

The Gilets Jaunes are angry, but they are not wrecking the Champs Elysees “for fun” as do the anarchists.

Like the tens of thousands of visitors enjoying a cold but dry afternoon, we walked all over town today, from the charred Notre Dame cathedral (more pitiful in person) to city hall to the rebuilt Les Halles market where casseurs again went after business entities.

As darkness fell, the police, most of them, went back to their offices or barracks, and the casseurs again melted into the crowd.

How long can this go on … well, it is 53 weeks now. I don’t know how Parisians put up with this, not knowing which train will be running and which will not.

But given the energy of the police response to protestors today, it seems Emmanuel Macron’s government has decided the disruptions and violence in the streets must end soon.


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