Yellow Vests riot in Paris, but their anger is rooted deep in France

Yellow vests protesters face riot police as they demonstrate against rising oil prices and living costs in Paris, France on Dec 1, 2018.
Yellow vests protesters face riot police as they demonstrate against rising oil prices and living costs in Paris, France on Dec 1, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

GUERET, FRANCE (NYTIMES) - At the bare bottom of Florian Dou's shopping cart at the discount supermarket, there was a packet of US$6 (S$8) sausages and not much else. It was the end of last week, and the end of last month. At that point, "my salary and my wife's have been gone for 10 days," he lamented.

How to survive those days between when the money runs out and when his paycheck arrives for his work as a warehouse handler has become a monthly challenge. The same is true for so many others in Gueret, a grim provincial town in south-central France. And it has made Mr Dou angry.

So he used what money he had left and drove 400km to join the fiery protests last Saturday (Dec 1) in Paris, where police moved in with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.

"We knew they were sent in to get rid of us," he said the day after, "and believe me, they were not into Mr Nice Guy."

But he vows they are not going anywhere.

The "Yellow Vest" protests he is a part of present an extraordinary venting of rage and resentment by ordinary working people, aimed at the mounting inequalities that have eroded their lives. The unrest began in response to rising gas taxes and has been building in intensity over the past three weeks, peaking last Saturday.

With little organisation and relying mostly on social media, they have moved spontaneously from France's poor rural regions over the past month to the banks of the Seine, where they have now become impossible to ignore.

On Sunday, President Emmanuel Macron toured the graffiti-scrawled monuments of the capital and the damage along some of the richest shopping streets in Europe. All around France, the protests left three dead and more than 260 wounded, with more than 400 arrested.

Mr Macron convened a crisis Cabinet meeting, weighing whether to impose a state of emergency.

Mr Macron has previously insisted that, unlike past French governments, he will not back down in the face of popular resistance to reforms like a loosening of labor laws. It is a harder line than what many other Western European countries have taken.

The protesters ridicule him as a president of the rich and say he is trying to balance his budgets on their backs as he remains deaf to their concerns.

But if it was the shattered glass and burned cars along Rue Rivoli or Avenue Haussmann in Paris that finally got Mr Macron's attention, the movement - named for the roadside safety vests worn by demonstrators - has in fact welled up from silent towns like Gueret, an administrative centre of 13,000 people, lost in the small valleys of central France.

Far from any big city, it sits in one of the poorest departments of France, where the public hospital is the biggest employer. The cafe in the main square is empty by mid-afternoon. The hulks of burned-out cars dot the moribund train station's tiny carpark, abandoned by citizens too poor to maintain them.

In places like these, a quiet fear gnaws at households: What happens when the money runs out around the 20th of the month? What do I put in the refrigerator with nothing left in the bank account and the electricity bill to pay? Which meal should I skip today? How do I tell my wife again there is no going out this weekend?

The stories of Mr Dou's neighbours who also joined the protests were much like his own.

Inside Ms Laetitia Depourtoux's freezer were hunks of frozen meat, a twice-a-year gift from her farmer-father, and her six-member family's meat ration.

On these cold nights, Mr Joel Decoux's oven burned the wood he chopped himself because he can't afford gas for heating.

It is not deep poverty, but ever-present unease in the small cities, towns and villages over what is becoming known as "the other France", away from the glitzy Parisian boulevards that were the scene of rioting this weekend.

"We live with stress," said Mr Fabrice Girardin, 46, a former carpet-layer who now looks after other people's pets to get by. "Every month, at the end of the month, we say, 'will there be enough to eat?"'

Since the acidic portrait of Gueret in novels by a famous native son, anti-Semitic 20th century writer Marcel Jouhandeau, the town is used to being mocked as the epitome of provincial backwardness.


The Yellow Vest protesters, the descendants of those who inspired Mr Jouhandeau's characters, can now be found waiting at the roadblocks as you come into town - truck and school-bus drivers, nurses, out-of-work electricians, housewives, warehouse handlers, part-time civil servants and construction workers on disability aid.

Mr Dou - who says his nine-year-old son has never been on vacation and his gross salary of €1,300 euros (S$2,020) "disappears immediately in the bills" - was among them. There is little left after high taxes and costly utilities such as electricity.

To protest, he and the other protesters wait at night in the middle of the roundabouts, in the rain and cold and mud under makeshift tarpaulin shelters and tents in the darkness of early morning.

"The People's Elysee" is scrawled on one, mocking Mr Macron's Elysee Palace, seat of the presidency.

"Macron, he's with the bosses, Macron, he's against the people," a singer intoned in a reggae-like jingle from the radio.

Mr Yoann Decoux, an out-of-work electrical linesman in his 30s who was presented by Gueret's Yellow Vest protesters as their spokesman, had been arrested in Paris the week before.

"I've never been in political demonstrations before," he said. "But we said, enough's enough... They don't even know how we get by with our tiny little salaries... But we are humans too, for God's sake!"

He was getting by with vegetables and help from his father, a part-time farmer.

None of the Gueret protesters expressed allegiance to any politician: Most said politics disgusted them.

"They are all the same," Mr Dou said.

When Gueret's mayor, Mr Michel Vergnier, a veteran Socialist with decades of connections in Paris, went to see the protesters, they were not welcoming.

"There's a rejection of politicians," Mr Vergnier said. "They are outside all political and union organisations."

Up the road the next morning, Ms Depourtoux, a night-shift nurse at the hospital, was up at 6.30am with her husband Olivier, an optician, to see their three daughters off to school in the darkness. Their modest house at a country intersection at the edge of town was pleasant but not spacious.

She gently mocked him because "there is never any gas in your car". With four children and many bills, their money - €1,800 a month for her, €1,500 for him - was "very quickly gone", Mr Olivier Depourtoux said.

"We live, but we've got to be careful. We can't go to the restaurant. All the little pleasures of life are gone," he said.

The bank refused to lend them any more money. Both had joined the Yellow Vests, and both had gone to Paris the preceding weekend to demonstrate. "As long as it continues, we are with it," he said.

His parents, after a lifetime of work, were reduced to penury, his father in a nursing home and his mother forced to accept meals from charity.

She fills the freezer with deep-discount frozen food from the hard discounter Lidl. They wait to get paid to fill up the car and to do the shopping.

Ms Elodie Marton, a mother of four who had joined the protesters at the demonstration outside town, said "we just don't make it to the end of the month".

"I've got €10 left," she said, as a dozen others tried to get themselves warm around an iron-barrel fire.

"Luckily, we've got some animals at the house" - chickens, ducks - "and we keep them for the end of the month," she said. "It sounds brutal, but my priority is the children," she said.

"We're fed up and we're angry!' shouted her husband Thomas Schwint, a cement hauler on a temporary €1,200 contract.

At the roundabout, Mr Laurent Aufrere, a truck driver, was deciding which of that day's meals to skip.

"If I stop rolling, I die. This is not nothing," he said. "What's happening right now is a citizen uprising."