Tuesday, March 19, 2019



If you are getting fed up with the weekly Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) demonstrations in France, you are not alone. Even some of the GJ themselves are dropping out, with the number of active protesters down from an early nationwide high of 287,000 to 32,300 this past weekend (10,000 in Paris alone). For the first time since the start of the GJ movement in mid-November 2018, polls are now indicating that a majority of the French (56% according to a February Elabe poll) want the Saturday protest marches to stop, even though they still support the GJ agenda. They approve of the grassroots group of widely varying ages and backgrounds that succeeded in forcing the government to cancel a planned fuel tax hike, but seem less convinced of the usefulness of continuing demonstrations now that the GJ's initial demands have been met and their new claims are less clear. 

Fouquet's vandalized and set on fire
Saturday, March 16, saw the 18th consecutive weekly GJ protest turning into one of the most destructive ones since the start of the movement four months ago. Numerous videos taken on the Champs Elysées in Paris attest to the extreme violence against the police who were pelted with paving stones and assaulted even inside their police vans, while the notorious casseurs (Black Bloc hooligansunleashed their fury against property along the way as they vandalized and set fire to the famous Fouquet’s restaurant, burned down three newsstands, vandalized and pillaged a number of luxury shops, set fire to cars and to a ground-floor bank in an apartment building where police managed to extricate in extremis a young woman and her child from the fire that completely destroyed the bank offices below her. A tragedy had been narrowly avoided, but the murderous hatred that has infected these demonstrations has begun to overshadow the initial call of the Gilets Jaunes for social justice, and switch public sympathy to the merchants and business owners who have been vandalized (sometimes more than once) or forced to close shop on Saturdays. 

Shops vandalized and looted
The incidents showed once again the difficulty of a government that must allow demonstrations, as guaranteed by the Constitution, but is unable to maintain order with an under-equipped and over-extended police force that is nearing exhaustion after 18 consecutive weekends of battle. Police reported that 42 protesters, 17 police officers, and one fireman were injured in this latest demonstration, while 237 people were arrested and 200 held in custody—later reduced to 87 held in custody, all others released.  

President Macron cut short a ski weekend in the Pyrenees to return to Paris for a crisis meeting with his Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior, and subsequently promised strong measures, to be announced soon, to ensure safe and peaceful demonstrations in the future. We are waiting. 


In addition to the material cost of the widespread destruction, there has been concern for some time over the high number of injuries suffered in the GJ protests. According to Le Monde of January 21st, they then numbered 1700 protesters and 1000 police officers and included light injuries as well as those requiring hospitalization. They did not include the permanent injuries caused by alleged police brutality for which 157 complaints have been filed and 71 referred to the IGNP (Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale) for further investigation. Among these are the loss of fingers or an eye caused by a rubber bullet fired from an “LBD” gun (lanceur à balles de défense) during heated confrontations. These flashball guns are used by riot police in the frontlines—those charged with pushing back demonstrators and therefore most exposed to the angry mob. After the first serious injuries, these police officers were ordered to wear body cameras, which, together with videos and live reports, serve to help the IGPN to distinguish between legitimate defense and undue force. For instance, a flashball is supposed to be aimed below the shoulder, but when a demonstrator ducks to pick up a paving stone or a teargas cannister and gets hit in the face, is this police brutality or legitimate defense? The continued use of the controversial LBD gun was recently approved by the French Constitutional Council which found this gun to be the best defensive weapon for the riot police when faced with Molotov cocktails, fire bombs, and all manner of heavy projectiles in up-close violent confrontations. 


UN Human Rights boss Michelle Bachelet
As the flashball debate continued in France, UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for a full investigation into alleged excessive force by French police against Gilets Jaunes protesters. Her Commission has placed France on its police violence list as the only developed country alongside such wrongdoers as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Haiti. Ouch! In response, the French government reminded Mrs. Bachelet that it is the armed thugs at these demonstrations who are at the root of the extreme violence against persons and property, and not the embattled police who have been facing hostile crowds every weekend since mid-November and have suffered many injuries in that time. Even so, the French courts are again looking into claims of police violence and, unless convinced otherwise by the latest videos, may well end up banning the controversial LBD gun after all.


Alain Finkielkraut attacked by Gilets Jaunes
While the Gilets Jaunes appear to be running out of steam with dwindling numbers of marchers, the holdouts have hardened in their demands for a citizens’ referendum and a change in government. The discourse is more strident and hateful, and may have found its way into an outbreak of antisemitism that is never far from the surface in France. During one of the recent Saturday demonstrations, well known French-born philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was stopped near his home in Paris by a group of Yellow Vests who hurled insults at him like Dirty Jew, Go back to Tel Aviv, France is OURS!, and more. Shortly thereafter, antisemitic slogans appeared on some public buildings, posters of the widely admired Simone Veil were covered with swastikas, as were a large number of graves in a Jewish cemetery in Alsace while others were heavily damaged and headstones overturned. 

President Macron paid a visit to the desecrated cemetery and forcefully condemned this religious violence which has no place in a lay country such as France, but no government has been able to effectively eradicate the ever-simmering antisemitic sentiment in this country. 


Greta Thunberg's School Strike for Climate
March 15 was the closing date for President Macron's 2-month-long Grand Débât, but it also was the beginning of a new weekly protest when thousands of French high school students skipped class that Friday afternoon to take to the streets to demand government action on climate change. Following the example of 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, who gained worldwide attention by speaking out at the Davos Economic Forum where she accused irresponsible adults (including her audience of captains of industry) of ignoring global warming for too long and called on youth to take over. She had been demonstrating every Friday afternoon since last August with a sit-down strike in front of her school or the Swedish Parliament where her quiet determination soon inspired teenagers all over the world to do the same on Friday afternoons. In the first such protest tens of thousands of French students skipped classes on March 15 to demonstrate, followed the next day by some 45,000 people of all ages who marched peacefully in Paris for climate change action, while the Gilets Jaunes held their noisy and destructive protest in another part of town. The contrast between the quiet climate change march and the slash-and-burn Gilets Jaunes march could not have been greater.  


In an attempt at rapprochement with those who had accused him of being out of touch with ordinary citizens, Emmanuel Macron initiated a Grand Debate of weekly meetings with mayors throughout France between January 15 and March 15. He also proposed that mayors invite citizens to express their concerns in Books of Grievances made available at city halls until March 15. These Books have now been collected and, once digitalized and summarized, will be submitted to the government, which has promised to respond before the end of April. 

On Monday following the disastrous GJ demonstration, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced some of the "strong measures" President Macron had referred to earlier:  No more demonstrations on the Champs Elysées as well as two areas in Bordeaux and Toulouse that have been repeatedly vandalized; increased fines for those who participate in unauthorized demonstrations and jail time for the organizers; possible use of surveillance drones to pinpoint and identify outside hooligans; cancellation of the demonstration as soon as the presence of hooligans is detected. Oh, and the Paris police chief was fired for having given confusing instructions on the use of the LBD guns.

It is to be hoped that this will allow the government to take back control. Macron needs to win this one to regain the popularity he lost over claims of "arrogance" and being "the president of the rich" while overtaxing the poor, which was the spark that set off these Gilet Jaunes protests to begin with. Will it be enough to turn voters around? That may depend on his April response to the problems raised in the Debates and the Books of Grievances. In the meantime, he will be watched closely for his dealings with the Yellow Vest crisis and the missteps in his own government. 

Stay tuned...