Lievie and I, Spikey and Pepie arrived in Paris, the City Of Lights, at around eleven am on an overcast and cold Saturday. We came to take part in a demonstration called the Yellow Jackets or if you prefer the French Gilets Jaunes. We had heard that possibly up to three million (who would announce such an outrageous figure?) would be on the street loudly airing their grievances and invectives at President Macron. All for his failure to reduce outrageously high gas and diesel taxes and other confiscatory taxes that have been emptying the pockets of the French motorists and middle class for way too long. In actuality, roughly 5000 almost exclusively white Gilets Jaunes were in attendance though this number appeared to be just a smattering on the immense boulevard. What a first impression of the Champs Elysees! Empty of auto traffic, its prodigious width was apparent to the degree that two 747’s could easily have simultaneously landed from opposite directions. Or so it appeared. Also observed right away were groups of police who were dressed from helmet to boots in commanding black beetle-like or Star Wars-like anti-riot regalia, including anti-street thug shields . Formidable protectors and defenders of the peace, they were a welcome sight.
We had taken part in a similar yellow jacket protest the week before in Lille, a beautiful city that could easily fit in the hip pocket of Paris and occupy only one of its districts or arrondissements. There, on a cold windy day, our fellow marchers during a four-kilometer parade were a good-natured group who were sincere and well behaved in their righteous demands on President Macron to lower taxes. All was peaceful and without incident. The collective tirade was limited to “Demission Macron!” (“Step down, Macron!”) All this didn’t come off to me as a protest that would change the minds of the culprits responsible for the taxation. Things in Paris started out in a similar way. A festive comradery prevailed as we started marching up the Champs Elysees. Many Gilets Jaunes were intrigued by Pepie and Spikey and were taking photos and engaging us in the spirited friendly talk. But we soon witnessed scores of helmeted riot police at various locations in standby mode. This was both reassuring and disturbing as it signalled that things could at any time get rough and ugly.
I had considered this possibility days in advance, as I was aware of the character of many protest marches in the USA down through the past twenty years or so where (either professional revolutionaries or common hoodlums bent on mayhem and destruction or worse) groups of young masked thugs had infiltrated and co-opted the original peacefully-protesting group of marchers. This ignominious lot would then commence to toss stones, beer cans and Molotov cocktails at police, while destroying public, and especially private property. They would often go even further by overturning police vehicles, committing arson and beating up innocent people and even assaulting police officers. Any infiltration today would not require masks, as those intent on mayhem could just don a yellow jacket. In fact, there stood a resourceful hawker on the Champs Elysees selling those items.
In less than twenty minutes, as we continued marching west on the Champs Elysees and away from the venerable landmark Arc de Triomphe, we observed smoke filling the sky in the distance some three hundred meters away. Suddenly a throng of yellow jackets started reversing course in a fast-stepping mode. They were running seconds later from the onrushing tear gas that was filling the air. Many in the by now chaotic crowd were yellow-jacketed youths that appeared somewhat menacing. I realize that this is all subjective, but I sensed the way they moved, that they were in small groups with other youths and not with what might appear to be family or spouses and that they had a certain swagger and gait that suggested an arrogance and bellicose intent. With all this commotion and mayhem surrounding us, we alighted towards the friendly-looking, blue decorated café/restaurant called le Deauville.
We found a place to sit and ordered two coffees and a croissant. It was fairly crowded with customers and had a congenial staff who were all dressed in blue and white stripped Marseille-style sailor’s shirts. On the wall in the adjacent rear dining area was a huge projected live television feed of what was going on outside not more than a hundred meters away. This had an eerie matrix-like effect on the senses. It was pure chaos. Smoke filled the air as fires were flaring at various points and as youths were seen hauling large pieces of metal barricade material onto the street. What was seen on television was then seen a minute later right outside the window. A large police vehicle was shooting water at yellow-jacketed bottle-throwing hoodlums. With all that was happening, Barry Mc Quire’s ‘Eve of Destruction started playing in my head even as the Pretenders ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’, with its fast and nervous pulse, played on the restaurant’s kitchen counter radio.
As the crowds passing in front of the restaurant started to thicken, as the noise swelled, as the smoke filled the air, a disturbing and threatening kinetic energy prevailed, like a plague of locusts or as if a major hurricane or tornado was intent on wiping away everything that wasn’t nailed down. With its glass patio roof and large windows on three sides, we were in a kind of aquarium that had the effect of heightening tensions.
Suddenly a young guy who appeared to be one of the yellow-jacket street thugs turned with a swagger towards the patrons inside and gave a finger gesture that indicated ‘we’ll be back’ or ‘we did all this’ or ‘don’t get too comfortable’. In a flash, the jack-booted troublemaker turned and was gone. The staff of the restaurant started to move the chairs and tables from the outdoor patio area inside and to the rear of the restaurant. In this hurried task, they were helped by several friendly yellow jackets.
As we sat there, we watched the restaurant staff moving stacks of chairs from the back room. These they placed along the inside of the large front windows, turning the restaurant into a kind of crude and doubtlessly ineffectual fortress. I was now starting to think that a flying home-made missile might crash through the glass roof of the front inner patio at any moment. From the near distance, a tremendous ‘boom’ which sounded like a hand grenade, was heard that for a second shook the restaurant.
As someone opened the door to let a co-worker in, tear gas leaked in from outside and my eyes momentarily burned and watered. I imagined then what the horrors of mustard gas in World War One must’ve have been like. Lieve started to worry if it was ever going to be safe to leave. She was very afraid for Pepie and Spikey. I then decided to see if it was possible for us to drive out of Paris. As she remained in the restaurant, I walked towards the garage-park less than a block from the Arc de Triomphe. I quickly zig-zagged my way through a forest of what appeared to be friendly yellow jackets who were observing the fires and general mayhem that was going on towards the middle of the Champs Elysees.
Two blocks away from the garage, which was cordoned off and empty, I saw four battle-clad policemen. I asked one, who kindly spoke English, if it was possible to leave from the garage-park, and was told ‘yes’. When I returned to the le Deauville I saw that Lieve was upset and worried that something had happened to me. She also related how she had spoken to her father and described to him the mayhem going on around us. His curt reply to that harried account was: “Can you pick up some mandarins for me?”
The most heroic act of the day occurred when Lieve got us the hell out of Paris. The GPS route out of the city became null and void because we had to avoid the volatile situation in the area of the Champs Elysees. The result was a harrowing half-hour drive through the labyrinthian spokes-in-a-wheel-like streets of Paris. Lieve, who knows Paris very well, left and righted through an unending quilt of people, cars, buses, shops, and signs. A veritable ocean of citizens and denizens pursuing consumer pleasures and other ephemeral comforts engulfed us, all apparently oblivious to the street anarchy on the other side of the Seine. With no way out on the Rive Droite of the Seine, we tried the La Rive Gauche or Left Bank, where the same rat-in-a-trap dilemma persisted. With the help of a cop and a motorist, we finally saw a sign that announced “This way the hell out of Paris”