Report by Paul Cudenec of Shoal Collective.
There weren’t too many hi-vis jackets in evidence when we arrived at one of a series of roundabouts on the “rocade”, the ring road, at Alès in south-east France on Tuesday March 19.
Would there be enough protesters to pull off the roadblock that had been agreed at the previous night’s meeting of the Gilets Jaunes assembly at the trade union HQ in the former mining town?
I needn’t have worried. It was just that the 6.30am meet-up time had been a little too early for some, and a steady flow of people soon arrived. There were 30 or so at this point.
A dark blue gendarme van arrived, toured the roundabout but didn’t stop and disappeared again. They weren’t going to interfere at the set-up stage, it seemed.
Suddenly, Yellow Vests started streaming off the roundabout towards a side road. They were heading towards a large white van which had just pulled up.
The doors were flung open to reveal that it was packed full of road-blocking material – palettes and tyres, mainly huge lorry ones.
This was all quickly carried, or rolled, to the edges of the roundabout. Some Gilets Jaunes headed off down the ring road towards the next junction.
Before long, this stretch of dual carriageway was blocked from both ends. The operation was remarkably efficient. These people knew what they were doing!
As the morning rush-hour got underway, the blockade, part of a national day of action to coincide with a trade union strike, firmed up even further.
There were enough Gilets Jaunes, easily more than 100, to send a second group to block another roundabout a few miles down the road.
At the original site, the filtering operation came into effect. This was made easier by the use of trolleys borrowed from a nearby supermarket, weighed down with tyres and decorated with yellow cardboard fists.
Someone driving a flat-bed truck loaded with old tyres, apparently on the way to the dump, decided to make an impromptu donation to the Gilets Jaunes cause, creating an impressive heap of rubber on the roadside.
Ordinary car drivers were not allowed through the road block. If they stopped to ask, they were given directions for an alternative route.
However, doctors or nurses on duty were allowed to pass if they could prove who they were. Ambulances and firefighters had the automatic right to go through the barricade.
Every time one was seen, or heard, approaching, the call went out – “pompiers!” – and people rushed to pick up the palettes and roll aside the supermarket trolleys until they had passed, taking care not to let any uninvited traffic through in their wake.
Although car drivers were obviously inconvenienced by the ring road being blocked, and had to take the long way round, they were not the real target.
The aim was to block the economy, in the shape of the heavy goods vehicles which are the life blood of capitalist commerce across Europe.
When lorries – or certain lorries, anyway, as there were some complicated criteria that I never quite grasped – approached the blocked section of road, they were not turned away but invited to enter.
Some of them took a bit of convincing, with Gilets Jaunes standing in front of their vehicle or blocking their way with some of the ample supply of tyres.
But others were more than happy to pass through the blockade into the stretch of road sealed off at both ends by the protesters, where they would have to remain until the end of the action at 8pm.
I was a little surprised by this, until it was patiently explained to me that this amounted, effectively, to a day off for the lorry drivers.
They could phone their boss, report that they were blocked in by the Gilets Jaunes, and spend the day sleeping in their cab, sitting in the sun, drinking coffee, chatting with other drivers or protesters, or whatever. And be paid for it.
When we see a HGV branded with the name of some foul capitalist business, it is too easy to forget that the man or woman driving it is not part of that business, but a victim of that business and can be a willing accomplice in a struggle against the world which that business represents.
After six hours of the blockade, there was no space for any more lorries and disappointed drivers had to be turned away at the barricades.
I took a walk down the blocked stretch of dual carriageway, which was essentially now a lorry park with a narrow central lane for emergency vehicles.
More than fifty lorries had rolled into the Yellow Vest net – mostly French ones but some from Poland, Hungary and Romania. Quite a haul!
There had been a lot of talk at the Monday night assembly about the possible reaction of the police, who had previously used tear gas to clear a roundabout and against a town centre protest.
People were advised to bring protective masks, goggles and so on and were armed with information on solicitors and arrest support.
So it was slightly surprising that when the Police Nationale first turned up at the action, they exchanged smiles and handshakes with some of the Yellow Vests.
I asked somebody about this. “It’s because they’re local police, they’re from here,” he replied. “They’re friends, family members even. One of the Gilets Jaunes is a retired cop, in fact!”
Later the gendarmerie, part of the French armed forces, also turned up and were surrounded by a huddle of Gilets Jaunes.
Something termed a “negotiation” took place and the “forces of order” went on their way. The local paper, Midi Libre, reported later that the authorities in Alès said they did not, on this day of national action, have enough policing resources available to dislodge the blockade.