“We’re still here because we have to keep on fighting”

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Paul Cudenec of Shoal Collective reports from Montpellier, France, on the first birthday of the Gilets Jaunes’ uprising

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The Yellow Vest protest in Montpellier on Saturday November 16

“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.

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Thousands of protesters stream across the river

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.

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Trams and traffic were halted

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.

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A cloud of tear gas engulfs protesters in Montpellier

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.

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The “Yellow Village” on a roundabout on the outskirts of the city

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”.

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Taking to the streets for the anniversary

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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“This is a turning point in history!”

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Make no mistake, the Gilets Jaunes are in this for the long haul.

Today, April 13, was the twenty-second successive Saturday that they have taken to the streets in huge numbers to revolt against President Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal regime.

Five months on, there is still the energy, determination and critical mass to bring about a major change in the course of modern French history.

Each new round of police violence, each new draconian piece of repression, each new sneering dismissal of the yellow “mob” by right-wing politicians, just seems to give the uprising a new burst of energy.

The Mediterranean city of Montpellier was not the main Yellow Vest event in the south of France for Act XXII – all eyes were on Toulouse, where a massive turn-out was met with police violence and teargas.

But, remarkably, some 5,000 people turned out in Montpellier to support the Gilets Jaunes cause and condemn the brutality with which they have been repressed.

This is where the real strength of the movement can be seen – in the scores and scores of protests held in cities and towns all over the country week after week, which are hardly even noticed on the national, let alone international, level.

The Gilets Jaunes hold protests in Montpellier every week, but this time they were marching alongside the French human rights league LDH (Ligue des droits de l’homme) and various local associations, trade unions and left-wing political groups, such as France Insoumise.

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As people gathered in the warm spring sunshine on La Place de la Comédie in the historic centre of the Montpellier, Yellow Vest Nathalie told me this coming-together was a good thing.

“We need this convergence,” she said. “There needs to be lots of us out there”.

Fellow protester Charlotte agreed, saying: “At the start the Gilets Jaunes didn’t want to work with other groups, but now they realise we have to come together”.

A few metres away, Jean-Luc told me the same thing: “It is very important that the struggles converge, because it’s only that way that we’ll win.”

The huge protest through the streets of Montpellier featured all the diversity and energy for which the Gilets Jaunes have become known.

French national flags waved proudly as clenched fists were raised to the sound of The Internationale, as broadcast by the CGT trade union’s lorry. Later they switched to The Clash.

A feisty young woman beat ferociously on a drum and people sang and danced to the now-familiar Yellow Vest songs about the reviled Macron.

“Work, consume and shut your mouth!”, came the ironic chant. “Don’t watch us, join us!” passers-by were urged.

When the protest arrived back at the Comédie after its second tour of the city centre, it was met with applause from a small group of Kurdish protesters who had gathered there.

The respect was returned by the Yellow Vest protests. “Tous ensemble!” they shouted. “All together!”

The police presence this time around was minimal, except when there was an important public building, or the rail station, to be protected.

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Montpellier is the seventh biggest city in France and has expanded rapidly in the last 20 years or so.

But while the sprawl of new business development around the city has brought in a degree of superficial wealth, the underlying issue of poverty has not gone away.

Valérie told me she had been waiting for the last seven years for something like the Gilets Jaunes movement to explode.

She added: “I am a single mother, I work, and I work just to survive”.

Fellow protester Lucile said it was “scandalous” that her elderly father had seen his pension reduced.

Even petrol prices were going up again, despite the respite earned by the first wave of Gilets Jaunes protests back in the autumn.

I asked protester Pascal whether he thought the Gilets Jaunes uprising could succeed in its aim of bringing about radical change to France.

He said: “We haven’t got any choice. If we fail, it’s slavery”.

He said time was on the side of the Yellow Vests and they knew it, which was why the protests kept on going and going.

This same point was made by a placard suggesting that the protests had only just begun – there were only another 160 Saturdays before the end of Macron’s presidential term in May 2022.

Stressed Pascal: “People realise that this is our last chance. This is a turning point in history”.

Jean-Luc said: “It’s a very big movement, the Yellow Vests, which has lasted five months and is going to keep going.

“Macron is never going to resign. The only way out is the dissolution of the national assembly.

“And we need more than that. We need the end of the fifth republic, we need different ways of representation – delegation, direct democracy.

“That’s going to be a revolution, if we move into a sixth republic”.

Valérie was also confident that success lay ahead. She said: “This is the first social movement which has lasted.

“I knew, even back in January, that it would go on at least until the European elections. There will always be another good excuse to keep going!”

Lucile said she could no longer put up with the contempt shown by Macron or the violence used against protesters.

“People go on a protest and are beaten up by the police and it doesn’t shock anyone. That’s what shocks me!”

She was less sure than the others I spoke to that the Gilets Jaunes movement would ultimately triumph against the raw power of global neoliberal capitalism.

But she added: “Days like today give us back some hope!”

Report by Paul Cudenec, a member of Shoal Collective.

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Only another 160 Saturdays of protest to go before the Gilets Jaunes see the back of Emmanuel Macron…

For more Yellow Vests reports see our Gilets Jaunes page