Lucy Ferriss


I've called this blog "Travelin' Thoughts" in the past, because I kept it mostly as a journal to record impressions of new places and cultures. But in a way, it's still a place for traveling thoughts--ideas that move through and past me, and out into the world. Some of these are literary, some just about life. It's a good place to open up the conversation, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.

The Yellow Vests

December 03, 2018

The gilets jaunes, or "yellow vests," have been demonstrating in Paris now for three consecutive Saturdays. The name comes from the reflective yellow vests that all French drivers are required to keep in their cars in case of emergency. Symbolically, then, this is a protest by drivers, who find the increased gas taxes imposed by Macron's administration as part of his climate-change policy to be a bridge too far. These folks mostly live in the suburbs or the towns dotting the countryside -- downtown Paris is too expensive for them -- and they cannot take advantage of France's much-vaunted public transportation system; they need their cars for work and leisure. The stick of the gas tax has come accompanied by various carrots, including a subsidy to replace your gas guzzler with an electric car, but these folks claim they can't afford a new car regardless of subsidy.

I suspect many of these folks are more middle- and working-class than actually living in poverty. Rather, the problem is the same as everywhere else in the developed world -- the rich have grown fantastically wealthy while their lives have been stuck in neutral. The people in Paris are rich -- rich enough to afford to live here and use the fantastic public transit -- while they're relegated to gray suburbs. Macron cares deeply about the fate of the planet (thank God), but these folks can't think about the planet. They're too burned up with resentment at how they've been left behind. The French, of course, are highly taxed generally, and for that they get benefits -- good public transportation, health care, disability, unemployment, retirement pensions, child care, subsidies for small business -- that they don't want to give up. If their agriculture were doing better because the climate were more stable, and their air was cleaner because they all drove the electric cars that Macron's subsidizing, they would not give those things up merely to be relieved of a tax. But they cannot imagine that better world, and the tax is right in front of them.

Last Saturday, I watched out my window as several hundred gilets jaunes marched down Boulevard Saint-Germain in the afternoon's light rain, presumably on their way out of town from the protest that had been taking place on the Champs-Elysées. I had a concert to sing that night at the American Cathedral with the Paris Choral Society -- a new edition of Mozart's Requiem, plus other pieces marking the 100th anniversary of the Armistice and commemorating the war dead. The metro I planned to take to the concert, avoiding the center of the demonstrations, was closed (later, I learned, because of violence from casseurs, the ruffians and vandals who have infiltrated the gilets jaunes and are possibly buoyed by Russians).

The area of the riot. I exited the subway upper
left, and had to reach the river, across from Ave. Basquest.

So I changed to the 1 line, which runs up the Champs-Elysées but (I was told) would not stop until Argentine, past the Arc de Triomphe. I figured I would get off there and make my way around through side streets. But the metro blew past Argentine to Porte Maillot, and I emerged onto the Avenue de la Grande Armée (Avenue of the Great Army) to a war zone. Gilets jaunes and casseurs had set cars on fire and broken shop windows, and the police had pushed them back from the Champs-Elysées with stun grenades (which sounded like bombs), tear gas, and water cannon. I thought I would scoot down a side street, but suddenly a large crowd of gilets jaunes was running, breaking through barricades, and I was afraid I would be trampled.

Ave. de la Grande Armée, a few minutes before I was gassed.

The avenue itself was almost deserted, so I continued that way toward a roiling cloud of black smoke through which I could barely discern the Arc de Triomphe. I found myself pushed and shoved, and my eyes and throat began to sting; I backed against a wall. A tall young gilet jaune stopped in front of me and asked, "Vous allez bien, Madame?" I said I wasn't doing at all well, that I had to sing a concert for the war dead, and I could not get through. He told me the concert was surely cancelled; I assured him it was not. He put his arm over my shoulder, told me to cover my eyes with my scarf, and led me right across the Arc de Triomphe, under the tear gas. My eyes were on fire, my throat ashy; everywhere, bombs seem to be going off. He delivered me into the line of police guarding an empty Champs-Elysées. At the cathedral, one choir member had brought eye wash in case anyone was tear-gassed. Another made me tea. We performed the concert. We had an audience, listening as we sang of death and loss. Dies irae. Salva me. Requiem aeternam.


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