I had been warned not to say anything to anyone about the meet-up
point for the Gilets Jaunes protest in Nîmes on the afternoon of Saturday December 29.
People were going to be heading there in dribs and drabs. Some had been spending the morning together on private land, out of sight of the police. This was to be a surprise.
Half an hour after the wildcat march set off from outside the football stadium, the reason for the caution became clear.
Hundreds of protesters in their now-iconical hi-vis yellow jackets streamed on to the concourse of the city’s police HQ, the Hôtel de Police.
As helmeted riot cops emerged from the building to protect it from the intruders, a large banner was unfurled, condemning police violence.
“France isn’t the country of liberté any more,” remarked Lionel, standing at the edge of the crowd. “Most of the police brutality is hidden. By the media, yes, but also everything that people put on the internet is erased.”
Nîmes is a good-sized city, the 19th biggest in France, but it hardly has a tradition of political unrest.
It is better known for its Roman architecture, its bull-fighting culture, its celebratory ‘ferias’ and the cloth that originally came “de Nîmes” and is now globally known as denim.
It is a sign of how far the roots of the Gilets Jaunes reach into deepest France, that the nîmois have been pouring out on to the streets in huge numbers, blocking the motorway, torching toll booths, closing down the main railway line.
From the police HQ, we headed into the centre of the Occitanian city. Outside the 1st century Roman amphitheatre we were joined by a squadron of motorcycling Gilets Jaunes, revving their engines furiously in support.
Then it was into the maze of narrow pedestrianised streets, where the police escort was repeatedly shaken off and their reappearance greeted with boos.
“Police everywhere, justice nowhere!” went the chants. “Macron resign!” “Everyone together!”
Social justice lies at the heart of the Gilets Jaunes’ cause – it is the first thing all of them want to talk about.
Martine is a retired company boss who describes herself as middle class. She said: “I could stay at home if I wanted to, but I can’t. I can’t stand seeing people not having enough to eat at the end of the day. And these are working people!
“France is the most envied country in the world for our culture, our know-how and our economy, but we are turning into a country in need”.
Those running the country were completely out of touch, she said, and had no idea of the everyday reality that people were living.
Lionel, who is also retired, likewise named poverty as the main reason why he was on the protest.
“People are living in misery. There are shanty towns, even here in Nîmes. People are badly paid and live in abominable conditions, but they are not necessarily on the street. We don’t see them.”
Lionel stressed it was not his own personal situation he was complaining about: “You have to protest for other people as well, not just yourself”.
Corporate media in France and beyond have made much of the involvement of some far-right elements on the fringes of the Gilets Jaunes, suggesting that the protest movement represents a slippery slope towards populist fascism.
I raised this issue with Riton, a libertarian communist from nearby Alès who had made the 25-mile trip to join the protest.
He assured me that the far right was very much a marginalised minority in the Gilets Jaunes movement.
“The movement is really about the class question, although it is not expressed in that way.
“It rejects the idea of leaders and is against all kinds of division. Racist arguments just don’t wash.
“There is also the criticism of the police and the calls for self-government. The extreme right is finding it harder and harder to identify with the movement.”
The “inter-class” flavour of the revolt had also faded after commercial traders whose businesses had been affected by the Gilets Jaunes realised the protests conflicted with their own personal interests and dropped their support, he said.
Riton said it was true that Gilets Jaunes often talked about “the people” and about being French.
“But you have to see what they mean by that. For them, being French is about being in revolt, about solidarity”.
As the Gilets Jaunes waved their tricolours and sang La Marseillaise, I realised he was right, in a way British people find it hard to grasp.
There is, after all, a world of difference between national anthems and flags that sing the stale praises of monarchies and empires and those that are the fruit of a living revolutionary tradition.