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Does Paris hear the people sing?

Written by Comment, Travel

Crossing the Seine on a sunny Saturday in February, I almost expect to hear inebriated strains of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ float over the water from the next bridge along; so raucous and Les Miserables-esque is the procession making its way towards the Latin Quarter. The wind beats a rhythm through the French flags held aloft by the crowd, and blows breaths of tear gas over the water into the stinging eyes of locals as they attempt to relax on the riverbanks. Past me on either side, uniformed and armed gendarmes in sunglasses head towards the fray in pairs, truncheons poised and shields at the ready. I slide into a bookshop to avoid the movie montage of fighting about to erupt (think ‘crash’, ‘bang’ and ‘wallop’ flashing in comic book font above a scrabbling cloud of upended legs) and slink home to my apartment. As I walk, I consider how the phenomenon of the Gilets Jaunes has affected my experience in Paris. So much for the ‘City of Love’, I grumble.

The Gilets Jaunes have been active in France since well before my arrival here in January, with ranks growing since October 2018. Though the protesting began in earnest as a response to rising fuel taxes, they are now a manifestation of the disillusionment, frustration and detachment felt with regard to the Macron administration. Their process for expressing their feelings shows the French in their element. Public remonstration and open, frank objection is their most tried and tested method for provoking change: ‘Gather the people, call them to arms, bring them in line!’ as clamoured in Les Misérables, seems as fitting 187 years on from the uprising by which it was inspired. It is pure, boiling passion, and for that I have the utmost respect – though when mixed with copious amounts of alcohol, stirred up by screams and chanting, and whipped into a frenzy by police retaliation, it appears to become a recipe for disaster.

The effect of the protests on the public is clear; one only need look at the ash-encrusted windows of ‘Le Fouquet’, the restaurant burned down during a particularly violent riot in March. On Saturdays, when the Gilets Jaunes take to the Champs Elysées in a garish flood of singing yellow, metro stations close indefinitely along the famous street. Red and black were the emblems of their forefathers, but ‘the blood of angry men’ and ‘the dark of ages past’ have been replaced by something a little more eye-catching and less sombre –  hi-vis armour, for a working class army. Confused tourists are bundled away to nearby boulevards, sidestepping the army of highlighters advancing upon the Place de la Concorde. Shops board up their windows with cardboard and newspaper to protect against smashed windows. No one appears immune to the chaos caused by the increasingly boisterous manifestations, nor the ever more brutal responses of the police. Yet, despite this awareness and obvious disruption, no one seems to know quite whether these alleged blights upon the City of Lights have had any effect on the administration towards which they are aimed.

In late April of this year, President Macron announced a swerve in his political approach, vowing to become more ‘humane’ in his attitude and bringing in 5 billion euros worth of tax cuts for lower income earners. If the desired effect of this attempt was to dissuade the protesters, it does not yet seem to have diluted their anger. The demonstrations continue – business owners still wake on Sunday mornings in fear of arriving at their livelihood to find it vandalised, tourists who arguably uphold a portion of Parisian economy take convoluted routes around the centre to avoid the riots, or end up confused and swept up in a sea of canary yellow. Standing in the Place de la Bastille, where the demonstrators often gather, it is easy for the eye to skip back in time to the 5th June, 1832, when the leaders of Paris Uprising diverted the funeral of a French general to the very same square in order to commence their remonstrations. They may be wearing different colours, but their resentment of those in control of their lives rings similarly, as they swing around the same pillars, fly the same flags, and both call for change.

It does not help the cause of the Gilets Jaunes that much of their cause’s reputation has been tarnished by allegations of antisemitism. Key French philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, was verbally abused by protesters as he walked past a group, and counter protests have even occurred against the original rioters. This can only detract from their original cause.

The Gilets Jaunes represent an important part of modern French society. They are the everyman, the builder, the plumber, the resident of lesser-known and more authentic areas of France than those inhabited by Macron and his cohorts. Their distaste with the current state of French politics is neither unfounded nor unreasonable, and their right to express these views is integral to the progression and improvement France must go through in order to continue to develop in a positive way. It was Victor Hugo himself who said, through the mouthpiece of Les Misérables, ‘if you wish to understand what Revolution is, call it Progress’. Yet progress is a shapeshifter, sometimes glorious and sometimes ruthless, and I find it such a shame that a core, historic and inherently French form of free expression has been contaminated by violence and racism. The Gilets Jaunes, as they grow drunker, sloppier and less focused upon their real aims, become an annoying sibling to Parisian locals, whining and shouting without ever really being heard. We can hear the people sing, and it is certainly a song of angry men; but is anyone paying attention anymore?

Last modified: 5th July 2019

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