PARIS – Café de la Paix went on war footing, its Belle Epoque windows near the Opera shielded by thick plywood panels. The Champs-Élysées, normally alive in December with a Christmas market full of food and fun, looks as if the Grinch stormed past in an armored column.
This is still France, with plenty of joie left in its vivre. But the Gilets Jaunes, quickly mastering Internet mob democracy, are rattling the foundations of an old society buffeted by extremist threats, a new world disorder and a fast-changing physiognomy.
The insurgency has neither leaders nor a plan. Yet, as Facebook alone suggests, it has millions of sympathizers in France, and those neon-yellow vests are spreading across Europe and beyond. On Friday, 1,000 “Elod Tsahov” (the Hebrew translation) wore them on the streets of Tel Aviv.
Attention focuses on louts who enliven their Saturdays by pitching cobblestones at cops. Riot police fire off teargas canisters directly into the scrum. Emergency rooms and jail cells fill. Ranks swell with kids from well-off families attracted by revolutionary zeal.
Mostly, though, the Gilets Jaunes are simply pissed-off people who work harder than ever yet still come up short, while a rich upper class (in French, “les ‘appy few”) socks away yet more wealth and pays less tax. They plot on social media and take to the streets to show their force.
The result is a Gallic Winter, a faint echo of the Arab Spring. Remember? A vegetable seller in a Tunisian backwater, protesting petty authority, set himself aflame. A groundswell deposed the president. Then Egyptians rose up against Hosni Mubarak. Things have not gone well since.
In November, a woman in a French backwater who sells cosmetics started a Facebook petition against a tax increase on diesel. It gathered nearly a million signatures. People put on the yellow safety vests motorists are required to keep in their cars and tied France in knots.
The movement’s loudest rallying cry is “Macron Demission.” But the obvious question is left hanging. If Emmanuel Macron resigns, then what?
Macron won in May 2017 because the center-right rallied behind him, a fresh young face who made an honest fortune in investment banking. A free-trade globalist, he champions European unity and aggressive action against climate change. He is smart, articulate and polished.
But to struggling Frenchmen who see him cut taxes for the rich, trim social benefits and curb labor unions, he is at best tone-deaf to the nation’s real needs and at worst a forked-tongued Donald Trump with table manners.
In a brief speech on Dec. 10, Macron put off the fuel tax for six months with some other minor concessions, showing himself open to discussion without caving in. That encouraged the insurgency to push for more.
If he abdicates – not likely – two main contenders are Marine Le Pen, the far-right, anti-immigrant firebrand, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an uninspiring opposite at the far left. Both claim wide support from the Gilets Jaunes.
On Saturday, the Champs-Élysées was a battle zone, yet markedly less so than on previous weeks. This insurgency, no storming of the Bastille, is about civil resistance to government policies with snowballing support via social media.
“Ask a hundred protesters what they want, and you get a hundred answers,” Lawrence Bond told me, after spending four Saturdays in a gasmask filming on the Champs-Élysées for Sky News. He covered hostilities across the world for decades. Now he takes the Metro to mayhem.
Whatever happens, France is changing fast. Paris is overrun by tourists and set on edge by terrorists. Elsewhere, big-box outlets drive small merchants out of business. Extreme weather, alternate drought and downpours, bedevil farmers. More and more, families scrimp to get by.
National police, traditionally relaxed, now often carry assault rifles and body armor. They are stretched thin as tensions rise, especially in tough suburbs, les banlieues. Since the 1980s, I’ve reported in some of the worst, always with local guides. Now, with drugs, guns and Islamist recruiters increasingly common, they can scare an outsider shitless.
Recently, the daily Liberation published frames from a video that electrified France. Young police recruits sent into the hardcore banlieue near Mantes-la-Jolie lined up 150 kids, mostly young teens, and forced them to kneel for hours facing a wall, humiliated and in pain. One, later released, summed up the general reaction to a reporter: “I’ll get even.”
It bears repeating: This is France, still prosperous, as safe as most countries come, with mostly free health care and social benefits to keep basic food on poor families’ tables.
But after 40 years of watching it add innovation to tradition while keeping its soul largely intact, it feels different almost by the month. Partly, this is because the world spins faster now. But an abyss is widening between those who spend $100 for high tea at the Crillon Hotel and those who sit on the street with hard-luck stories scrawled on cardboard.
The outside world intrudes. Friends in America tell me anti-Semitism is rife, as if a guy named Rosenblum can’t judge for himself. That’s about politics, not religion. As U.S. policy fortifies Benjamin Netanyahu, Jews are linked to hardline Israeli policy, whatever their own beliefs.
Mostly, the underlying issue is what Charles de Gaulle called “a certain idea of France.”
As I walked down the Champs-Élysées a day before the Saturday shit show, taking note of countless riot police vans, some towing serious weaponry, I stopped at a familiar statue near the broad avenue named for Franklin D. Roosevelt at another time in history.
De Gaulle gazed nose-first toward the Place de la Concorde, with his back to Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe, over a characteristic phrase set in stone: “There is a pact, spanning twenty centuries, between the grandeur of France and the liberty of the world.”
Maybe. He left office a year after 1968, the last explosion of violence on Paris streets. That was about breaking things. The Gilet Jaune movement is, in principle, about bringing back égalité and fraternité to go along with that liberté. I’m venturing no guesses on how that will turn out.