Report by Paul Cudenec of Shoal Collective.
Saturday March 16 2019 will probably go down in history as the day that Macron and his government gave up waiting for the Gilets Jaunes movement to fade away.
Huge numbers of Yellow Vests packed the Champs Elysées in Paris for Act 18 of their revolt and were immediately attacked by police.
But they had come ready for a fight, for a revolution even, and took the offensive against the armed forces of the regime, despite all the tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets, grenades and armoured vehicles.
Police were pelted with stones and repeatedly forced to retreat, in an eight-hour battle in the boulevard that has long symbolised chic Parisian affluence.
The rabble that had invaded this inner sanctuary of wealth wasted no time in trashing boutiques, eateries and banks, leaving them inscribed with their own philosophical reflections on the state of French society.
To the general consternation of the Parisian media and political elite, they even laid waste to that tiny minority’s spiritual home, the swanky gourmet restaurant Le Fouquet’s.
There was also much one-per-cent outrage over a video showing protesters in Black Bloc mode being cheered by others wearing the usual hi-vis singlets.
All of the lies peddled for months by the government were falling apart. No, the Gilets Jaunes movement had not faded away to insignificance. No, there was not a clear divide between the “extremist vandals” who broke windows and the rest of the movement. It was all just different aspects of the same uprising.
Interior minister Christophe Castaner declared afterwards that there had been no Gilets Jaunes in Paris that day, only 10,000 “casseurs” or vandals (there were at least ten times that many protesters, in fact).
This rhetoric allowed him to, again, completely brush aside the reasons behind the revolt and instead focus on a hard-line repressive strategy, firing the Paris police chief for not having ordered enough violence and announcing bans on protests and unspecified action against prominent Gilets Jaunes spokespeople.
A couple of days later the government announced that the army would be deployed to “protect public buildings” in France, a decision greeted with alarm and derision even by rivals on the conservative right.
Big shows of “strength” are tell-tale signs of an underlying sense of weakness, and the regime’s aura of authority had suffered as badly as the shop windows of the Champs Elysées.
* * *
Hundreds of miles away from Paris another huge crowd of Gilets Jaunes had gathered together, in completely different circumstances.
The occasion was a pre-release screening of the first film to be made about the movement, the documentary J’veux du soleil (I want some sunshine).
The local Gilets Jaunes at Dions, in the Gard department of southern France, appear in the documentary, made by Gilles Peret and François Ruffin, a well-known MP for the left-wing France Insoumise party.
Ruffin’s documentary Merci patron! (Thank you, boss!) was a massive box office hit in 2016 and fed into the mood of popular revolt of the Nuit Debout movement.
This was an outdoor event, as are so many such occasions in this Mediterranean corner of the country – in any case, no village hall or cinema could have accommodated the 3,000 people who turned up!
The giant inflatable screen had been installed in a manade, a ranch, on the rural plain north of Nîmes, surrounded by the vineyards which dominate this famous wine-producing region.
Before the film showing – which was after sunset, of course – there was a concert of the Spanish gypsy-style music that is very popular in these parts.
The culinary focus of the event was a “giant paella”, for which tickets had to be reserved in advance, but there were also plenty of food stalls and a “buvette”, an outdoor bar, where you could acquire a plastic beaker of local red wine for ninety-something pence.
The event as a whole was free, as might be expected for a political movement that is, above all, the voice of those with no money.
I took the time to look around me and to try to sum up the kind of people who were present. I was struck by the fact that it was impossible to do so.
Obviously it wasn’t “everyone” who was there (there was a serious overflow of the massive makeshift car park as it was! ) but this was certainly a cross-section of “everyone”.
These were the people you see everywhere here – at the market, sitting outside the cafés, or attending other general concerts or social events.
They were of mixed age and sex. There was nothing about the way they looked or dressed that marked them out as part of any particular “scene”.
That, perhaps, is the role played by the yellow vests worn by about half the people present – it represents the spirit of shared identity which unites these people and turns them from a collection of individuals into a whole.
This was a theme which cropped up again and again in the film, which is a kind of road movie in which Ruffin and Peret call in on Gilets Jaunes occupying roundabouts across France, from the Somme in the north to the Mediterranean coast.
People had been suffering in life but keeping it to themselves. They felt personally responsible, ashamed even, to struggle to pay the bills and feed themselves or their families.
Then the Gilets Jaunes appeared. They were accessible, friendly, and ready to talk. You didn’t have to pass an ideological examination to be allowed to take part in their revolt. You didn’t have to dress in a certain way or eat the right sort of food. Nobody even asked you how you voted at the last election.
Lonely and desperate people, spat out and cast aside by the capitalist consumer society which has taken hold of France, had suddenly rediscovered the community from which they had been separated.
In the Gilets Jaunes movement they did not just have political comrades, but friends. A new family, even. The hours spent on the roundabouts together had built solidarity, warmth, love.
J’veux du soleil is a powerful documentary because Ruffin allows himself to fade into the background and lets the Gilets Jaunes speak for themselves, with a frankness and intimacy that is rarely seen on camera.
The film intersperses these interviews with clips of Emmanuel Macron. The effect is stunning – the empty slickness of the neoliberal poster boy is the complete opposite of the raw honesty of the featured Gilets Jaunes.
The footage shows the arrogant “centrist” president, from his position of ultimate power and privilege, dismissing protesters as “people who are nothing”, as “lazy”, and as a “hateful mob”.
At the Dions screening, I was clearly not the only member of the audience who found Macron’s feudal contempt for the revolting peasants hard to stomach. His words were all but drowned out by a huge chorus of boos every time he appeared.
There were bursts of applause for particularly well-chosen words from Yellow Vests from elsewhere in France and great cheers of approval at the video of Gilets Jaunes famously smashing through the front gate of a government building in Paris with the aid of a construction vehicle they had borrowed from some nearby roadworks.
There was an outbreak of dancing at the end, too – the film draws its title and its sense of jaunty yet bittersweet optimism from a 1992 song by the group Au p’tit bonheur.
There were also, I was told later, plenty of tears – not just tears of sorrow for all the lives crushed by the dictatorship of money, but tears of joy for the renewal of hope in resistance.