Visiting Paris this spring as France goes from red, white, blue to yellow and green

Are you going to Paris this spring?

Has Paris turned from its customary red, white, blue to yellow and green?

Yellow of course is the yellow of the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests or “GJs”) or what has been called “yellow chaos”.

Thankfully, Paris survived the gilets jaunes final demonstration (“Act 18”) this past Saturday (16th March) even if a good number of shop-fronts especially in the area surrounding Champs-Elysées were destroyed and some set fire to.

But aren’t marchers coming for the “march for t’he climate” on the same day?

And – is “yellow the new red”?

For some time, we have been observing how cars have a special place in the heart of many French people.  We have wondered aloud about the name of the party represented by Emmanuel Macron, who became the first President in more than 100 years to sweep into power as an independent, which is en marche meaning “on the move”.  We have even gone as far as to comment how the French language treat verbs that involve “movement” (for example, ascend, descend, and so on) differently: these are “être” verbs rather than “avoir” verbs and follow different rules.

Those of us who have spent enough time in Paris will chuckle at the Parisians’ habit of parking illegally and their defense of it as their liberty (in the classical sense) to do so!

And so our observations proved prescient, as the issue that triggered the largest protest movement in France in the last 100 years was indeed cars: an increase in the tax on diesel fuels (on top of a new 80-kilometer-per-hour speed limit on 2-lane roads introduced in July which was widely seen as a “money-grabbing” act by the government).

It started with drivers blocking roundabouts and péages (toll stations on the freeway), dressed in gilets jaunes, the yellow vests that every French driver is required to carry in their car in case of accident or breakdown!

Breaking all the unspoken and spoken rules of French manifestations – whereby protests are usually choreographed within certain limits, with advanced notifications and agreed venues and routes and marshals – the GJs did not seek permission, erupting spontaneously in multiple places around France, without any union or political party organizing them.  It also rapidly broadened into a protest against taxes more generally as well as public service cuts, and gave voice to a call for better and fairer livelihood.

Over 17 weeks now and still counting with no real resolution yet in sight, the march that was to be its “finale” (or what is called “Act 18”) took place yesterday, 16th March, which paradoxically happened to coincide with the marche du siècle or marche pour le climat (or March of the Century or March for the Climate) that was part of an international movement started by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and set for the same day with similar marches in many other cities around the world.  The “green vests” however are a different bunch: this was more of a conventionally organized march, converging around Place de ‘Opéra and marching towards place de la République, the most emblematic protest boulevard in all of Paris, was not violent at all but rather infused with much singing, lots of clapping and holding of hands!

The violence that was prominent in the first few weeks of the protest movement returned on this final Saturday (the shop fronts of le Fouquet’s, Boss, Nike, Swarovski, Bulgari, Longchamp, SFR, PSG, amongst others, were burned, though no one flinched).  But the violence of the morning on and around the Champs-Elysées and the place de la Concorde gave way to the much more peaceful march in the afternoon that was mostly green but was attended by some yellow vests too.

The spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity in Paris seems to continue to have new chapters written.

President Macron has already offered €10bn of concessions to motorists and the low-paid.  A “great national debate” in was also launched in hundreds of village and town meetings (as well as France’s “overseas” territories).

Called a “wider, existential crisis for 21st-century democracies”, it has also triggered some nation-wide soul-searching.  It is certainly a popular and populist revolt against politics-as-usual or business-as-usual.

You even have a graphic designer duo who published a trilogy called “Revolution” and making a disturbing parallelism between the revolutionary movement of 1789 and the current movement of yellow vests, 230 years later.

And a historian of social movements has highlighted how this was a movement about the “moral economy” appeal to very basic shared moral ideas, a call to the government that some fundamental basic norms are to be respected.

The concerns that were voiced do seem to reflect the movement being a rebellion of the under-classes but it also typifies the 21st century – internet populism and connected mobilisations.

Spending time in Paris during the gilets jaunes protests can be a great window to understand the French people, to have real engagements with the French nation and the concerns of the citizen.  However, the situation can be fluid and worrisome, and we note a few suggestions for the spring traveler to Paris to reduce personal risks:

  1. Be especially careful on Saturdays.  While the 18 “Acts” (of protests) are now officially over, all formal mobilisations of the gilets jaunes up til now have been on Saturdays.
  2. If possible, avoid or maintain some distance from cars with yellow vests.
  3. Avoid major thorough-fares and landmarks especially the Champs-Elysées, the place de la Concorde, and the Champs de Mars near the Eiffel Tower, but also place de la Madeleine, place de la Bastille, place de la République and Assemblée National.
  4. Many shops and businesses in Paris are now closed on Saturdays, with the shop windows boarded up, even if they are not affected.  Up til now, areas that have mostly been unaffected include most of Saint-Germain-des- Prés, the 13th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements, as well as the Belleville/Buttes Chaumont neighborhood.
  5. Be aware of some of the political undertones that come from the fact that a good proportion of those engaged in violent acts are non-Parisians and are out-of-towners who have come from the provinces specially to join the protests in the capital city.
  6. The whole affair may be dying down (although it could renew itself.)  Protest numbers have been going down for a number of consecatuve weeks by now with official figures at 28,600 for the Saturday of 9th March (down from the December peak of 282,000)… Most pundits think the worst is over and there is much evidence that support in rural areas is slackening.  Reports of unscientific poll of yellow vests placed on car dashboards in rural Normandy was has gone down from 40% in December when the mobilisations were at its height to 10% to 14% more recently.
  7. Most Parisians will be happy to help you work out how to keep safe.

It is unlikely the protesters will give up easily and the “aftermath” of these violent Saturdays could be prolonged and protracted, while the government’s actions (or lack of) over the next few weeks and months will determine whether violence will return.  The situation is fluid and somewhat unpredictable for the precise reasons already mentioned and especially because the movement is not associated with any parties, reaching a wide cross-section of the “under-class” and those who do not feel their interests to have been represented and voices heard.

Overall, and notwithstanding this advice for caution, Paris in spring 2019 is still a wonderful city to spend time in except that it’s even more important to understand the (political) meaning of the various colours.  The carefree Parisian Saturday afternoons may not be for a little while.

(A small update as of 31 March 2019: the Saturday protests have continued with “Act 19” and “Act 20” taking place these past 2 Saturdays.  It was peaceful – and with the Champs-Élysées ban, protesters went up to Sacré-Cœur – but even though numbers are down it strongly suggests something needs to take place to break the “deadlock” between government and the protesting group.  We still believe the risk posed by the gilets jaunes to the traveler is manageable but expect to have to pay attention every Saturday for some while!)


Read more about Madeleine’s adventurous travails in Paris or see some of her favourite word-art.