Paul Cudenec of Shoal Collective reports from Montpellier, France, on the first birthday of the Gilets Jaunes’ uprising
“I am not ashamed to feel afraid from time to time. I keep on coming, but I understand those who don’t come any more because they’re too frightened”.
So spoke Antoine, a 75-year-old Gilet Jaune marking the first anniversary of the Yellow Vest movement in the southern French city of Montpellier on Saturday November 16.
This was just one of many protests and occupations across the country (notably in Paris) marking the birthday weekend and paving the way for a big day of strikes and actions on December 5.
Antoine explained: “I’ve been here from day one and I’ve escaped police batons by a whisker on several occasions, even though my only weapons are my whistle and my gilet jaune!”
The last of these alarming encounters had come just the previous week in Montpellier, he said, when the “forces of order” had attacked the demo right at the start.
He had seen a riot policeman from the CRS bearing down on him, baton raised, but fortunately for the pensioner it was another protester who took the blow.
I had already noticed that the majority of the demonstrators gathering in the Place de la Comédie were not wearing the trademark yellow singlets, in the stark contrast to the last time I reported from Montpellier, and Antoine said this was because of the massive police violence which protesters had been facing over the months.
He was sure this was a deliberate strategy on behalf of the French state and felt that the previous week’s brutality was intended to dissuade people from taking part in the anniversary protest we were attending.
Julian, an observer with the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, a human rights organisation, confirmed to me that the previous Saturday’s police behaviour had been particularly bad.
“There was kettling and teargassing right from the start, for the first time here and without there having been any violence”, he said. “The state really wanted to stop the demo. It was kettled for an hour and a half”.
He said there were some police who did their job properly, but others who certainly didn’t, particularly the plain-clothed BAC (Brigade anti-criminalité) units and the CDI (Compagnie départmentale d’intervention) for the Hérault area.
With this in mind, it was quite a relief when the demo, a couple of thousand strong, was able to form up and leave the elegant main city square without any visible police presence.
To the sound of drums, music and singing, we headed away from the narrow medieval city streets where the police would have been expecting us.
But as we surged in the bright Mediterranean sunshine across a bridge over the River Lez and into the suburbs, the seagulls circling overhead were accompanied by a police drone tracking our movements.
The protest paused for a moment at Place Ernest Granier, blocking cars and trams on this important intersection and then moved off again.
It was now clear that the target was the south coast motorway which runs through the outskirts of the city and, an hour after the march set off, it was met with a line of riot cops blocking the road ahead.
Not content with merely blocking the way, they advanced towards us and soon were raining volleys of tear gas cannisters down on the retreating protesters.
Quickly, a Plan B was hatched and hundreds of us streamed across a small park surrounded by housing estates to seek out another route to the motorway.
“Joyeux anniversaire!” sang the Gilets Jaunes in celebration of a whole year of joyful rebellion across the whole of this country.
Again, police vans turned up to block the way and more tear gas filled the air. Despite successful attempts to create traffic jams to halt the police’s progress, they caught up with us again a mile or so later and this time the protest was cut in two, with hundreds caught in a kettle.
The front part of the march ploughed on, still with the idea of blocking the motorway in mind, and came across the Village Jaune, a birthday-weekend occupation of the roundabout at Prés d’Arènes.
Here there were tents, a large gazebo, trestle tables, banners, yellow balloons and an astonishing level of honking and waving from passing motorists, confirming once again that this movement enjoys high levels of support from the French public, outside the dominant metropolitan elite.
What to do next? Some wanted to keep going for the motorway, some seemed happy to be on the roundabout and others wanted to head back and help out the part of the march kettled by police.
In the end, there was little choice. Police advanced at speed from two directions, the tear gas began coming again and protesters scattered.
The first year of this revolt has been a story of non-stop police repression, combined with the relentless sneering hostility of the corporate media. Can it succeed in the face of all that?
“Yes,” one Gilet Jaune, Ingrid, told me. “I am quite sure of that, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. We have to have hope. We want people to have a life, we want nobody to be sleeping on the streets, we want wealth to be shared.
“The government will give way. We just don’t know when!”
A fellow protester, Manon, said: “We’re still here because we have to keep on fighting. They are destroying everything.
“We have to do this despite the police repression. We are fighting for another world and this is what we find ourselves faced with. It’s totalitarian neoliberalism.
“We are fighting for people’s dignity. It is the same struggle everywhere, in Chile for example”.
Manon said the strength of the Gilets Jaunes movement was the way it brought together people from all sorts of backgrounds.
“We have created something completely different, a new generation of protesters. People have come together who would never have done so before”.
Antoine, who had spoken to me about the way police violence was scaring some people away from protesting, said he didn’t think it would work in the long run.
“I consider myself to be here as a representative of ten other people who have told me they are with me. Most people I know support the Gilets Jaunes.
“The aspects that motivate me are social justice and human rights, which exist less and less from one Saturday to the next.
“The Gilets Jaunes are much more representative of society as a whole than other movements I have been involved in, such as the trade unions”.
There were even people involved who considered themselves to be on the political right, he said, although he questioned whether this self-designation was accurate, given the nature of the cause they supported.
“The real right is that infernal couple of Macron and Le Pen”, he added, noting that Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, had abandoned her early pretence of supporting the Gilets Jaunes and had since reverted to form by allying herself with a fascistic police trade union which defends the use of violence againt protesters.
Asked whether the movement could succeed, he insisted: “It has already succeeded, by bringing together people from very different backgrounds, which is something in itself”.
This last point was reinforced by my conversation with Damien, a 74-year-old who explained that he was a retired policeman who had once been part of the notorious BAC units which have been in the forefront of the recent repression.
He said former colleagues he had spoken to were now more or less just going through the motions, doing the minimum their job required.
Damien said he was involved from the very start of the Gilets Jaunes revolt. “I’ve come back for the anniversary,” he added. “I’m still very unhappy about what I’m seeing”.
Macron had managed to hold on to power by dividing people, he said, and by buying their collaboration.
“Personally, I have nothing to complain about because I have got a good pension. But I can’t stand seeing people working all their lives and having nothing to show from it.
“I am doing this for everyone. This is a movement which came from below. It was a little revolution and it needs to keep going, starting with December 5”.
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