Nov 25th, 2018, 07:48 PM

The Gilets Jaunes Lit Up the Champs-Elysees

By Fernanda Sapiña Pérez
Protestors battling a water cannon and tear gas with a shield made out of a barricade—Image Credit: Ali Benzerara
Violence escalated in Saturday's protests as demonstrators clashed with police.

Additional reporting by Signi Livingstone-Peters.
The protest that saw Champs-Elysees catch fire will go down in history as one of the most destructive days that the capital has seen in a long time. The Gilets Jaunes, or yellow vests, are French citizens who are drivers, workers that work in various fields related to energy or gas, and citizens who are pushing back against the green revolution. They decided to take to the streets and protests the rising gas tax that will be imposed on diesel fuel. The protests turned from a pacifist gathering into a clash of protestors against the police as the situation unraveled.

Protestors at Avenue Montaigne running away from two recently fired tear gas grenades—Image Credit: Ali Benzerara

Why are they upset?

Many citizens expressed their discontent to the Plume when it was in the field. Pascal, a French worker in public electricity, seemed to disagree with various policies being established during the Macron government and the Paris Agreement, "The ecological tax taking back the vehicles with diesel? Absolutely not. I don’t agree. It’s economic, and they’re directing us towards electric. Me personally, I cannot afford it. I have the right to seven thousand euros and I cannot pay 36 thousand euros. I work, from Monday to Friday like everybody else. This morning we did 300 kilometers just to come here and this will continue. There must be results and regulations."

Pascal also had some insights into how the system works and why he believes there must be better regulations, saying, "I think that the price of the barrels should be readjusted systematically at the pump. Now that we buy barrels at, for example, ten percent even though we have the reserves of 100 milliliters, this is still an example, we will lower the price once it has arrived. What should be done is put the price of the barrels back up if the price gets too low and then when it reached the pump we will know what we’re paying for. Also, the financing should be public."

And then, all hell began to break loose.

One of the many destroyed pieces of property during the protests—Image Credit: Ali Benzerara

In the belly of the beast

French protests are pretty routine: there is civil unrest, marching, the grenadiers come with their riot gear and only if there is some escalation will tear gas be used. The air stung and smelt sour with tear gas. In the distance, clouds of smoke hovered and distant bangs were heard. Barricades were being set up, rocks and cobblestones from the street were being crumbled and thrown at the police. The air's density seemed to thicken as waves of tear gas began to overcome the barricaders in Avenue Montaigne. "Réculez! Réculez!" rang throughout the barricades as a war cry, when those in the front lines felt like they couldn't hold the line any longer. Nonetheless, when the collective of yellow-vested protestors regrouped, the war cry changed from one of protection to one astounding and powerful "Allez!" as they charged towards the police.

A tear gas grenade has just been fired and protests scramble away from it and from the firecrackers that have just been fired moments ago—Image Credits: Ali Benzerara

Tear gas, rubber bullets, and firecrackers were used on the crowds. Water cannons made an appearance at some point during the protest, leaving some soaking wet protestors. 

"I live in Lille, I work at Heineken, and my name is Thomas. There is no communication possible. Before, we were here peacefully in front of the barricades, but there was no communication possible. They keep hitting us and throwing stuff at every moment. They are also charging at us. I tried to block them so they wouldn’t be able to advance, but they pushed us back. And I think that there is tear gas [in the water] because it stings," Thomas said. "It’s not about the tax, it’s everything. They’re taking away tax on the rich so they can tax the poor, and that makes me furious because I have my grandparents who don’t even have enough money to finish the month and they can’t even deposit their money." Protestors blamed the direct escalation on the police, citing lack of communication and brute, unnecessary force.

Thomas also had insights on whether rising prices in diesel and gas would make people digress from gas and start going greener. He said, "It will pollute the same if it’s gas or electric. It’s the same thing as producing nuclear energy; this contaminates the same. Nothing is going to change if we don’t change. Nothing is changing." he concluded before another wave of tear gas struck.

Protestors breaking up cobblestones in order to break them into smaller, throwable pieces—Image Credit: Ali Benzerara

A means to an end?

Flashbangs and tear gas grenades were going off left and right. Blinded, confused and in pain, protestors ran to seek shelter. One of the unlucky protestors was a man wearing protective gear, a helmet and his vest on top, and he had a fresh laceration on his left cheekbone. His face was red with irritation from the tear gas. His teary eyes were somewhat swollen as he examined his body, which seemed to be burned.

"Here between my legs see how I’m burned here. Bam, the explosion hit me directly in the face, completely covered me," the man said. "If they’re doing war, we’re going to do the same. No problem. It exploded in my face. I’m a pacifist like everybody else, haven’t broken anything and here they are, trying to harm us. We have been attacked and hurt. and well that’s that. We work, I’m a mason, I’ve spent all my life working in construction. This should give me the right to freedom of expression. Where is it? We don’t even have the right to speak freely anymore. I’ve worked all my life in construction, 10 years after I’ve worked here we do not have the right to express ourselves."

"We have been gassed, I've taken shrapnel to the face, and well. Next time, we’ll come armed," the man said.

One of the multiple protestors who were injured, with a laceration on his forehead—Image Credit: Ali Benzerara

The escalations of the protests continued. Flashbangs were also being used on the crowds. Police could be seen beating up protestors who were throwing rocks. Some protestors cried for mercy and some for blood. Water cannons did not discriminate as all protestors or bypassers who were on the street were being sprayed. At some point, between the water cannons and tear gas, protestors and unlucky bypassers alike found refuge in one of the abandoned buildings. Holding back tears and choking on residual tear gas that clung to the air, they waited with anticipation for the cannon to pass before charging forwards against the police once more. 

Taking refuge from the water cannons and the cloud of tear gas outside—Image Credit: Ali Benzerara

Bonfires were lit, cars were destroyed, people were bleeding from injuries due to shrapnel and rock, tear gas induced tears were everywhere as this clash escalated to unprecedented violence from both the police and the protestors.

How did this violence come to be?

Some have begun to blame the ultra-right movement for the violence seen in protests and across Paris, "These are not France's most marginalized citizens, but those who say they struggle even while working, who feel they're bearing the brunt of France's economic problems, while businesses and the rich get tax breaks. The government has blamed ultra-right gangs for the violence in Paris, but there are many peaceful citizens - both at the barricades and at home - who support the movement too. Its diversity and democracy has been its strength so far but also makes its ultimate vision unclear, and its membership hard to control," said the BBC about the protests that took place yesterday. So with both sides blaming each other for the escalation, there seems to be no clear consensus in sight. With rising violence during protests such as this one, it could be a symptom of a bigger disease, which is the quickly escalating tensions between Macron's government and the people.