The Gilets Jaunes 1: The First Three Weeks

The Gilets Jaunes 1: The First Three Weeks

On August 24, 2019 the Gilets Jaunes accomplished Acte 41.  Relatively few people turned out; the movement has been hampered for some weeks both by the dangerous heat wave of summer and by the August vacation season–and, implicitly, I suspect, by the possibility of a sudden, splashy relaunch in the fall.  Some of the prominent figures of the movement have promised great things for la rentrée, the September return, when everyone comes back and buckles down for the rest of the year.  

“Police, you’re tired? You’ve Seen Nothing Yet! La Rentrée des Gilets Jaunes”

To do what?

The carbon tax on diesel and gas is long gone; Macron has stated, for better or worse and contrary to popular demand, that he will not restore the ISF, the “solidarity” tax on the super-rich.  Discussions about other matters, including retirees, are continuing. The one remaining constant demand is also the most populist and dangerous, the RIC, or popular referendum–at its worst and most extreme, governance by Brexit-like votes. (See post “What is the RIC,” from April).  There is no obvious resolution in sight.  

A more important consideration is what happens to the demands, the claims against unfair distribution of resources, the growing inequalities between rich and poor, that have affected not only France but much of the world at large.  The repetitious continuance of “Acts” is now clearly counterproductive or, at best, irrelevant to the resolution of these issues. And yet they were there, once again, on Saturday, with directions, as always, for those coming to Paris.

The planned route for Acte 41; we see the Left Bank, away from the center and to the south of the Seine, visible in top right

I’m going to focus on the first three Saturdays of the protest–November 17, November 24, and December 1–and suggest that they were critical in setting the movement on the unproductive course it has taken. It should not have lasted this long, and missteps on both sides, and particularly on the government side, led to the impasse both they, and the government, find themselves in. The government was too slow to react; anger festered to an irrational degree on social media; and perhaps worst of all, the policing of the protest has taken center stage as the chief issue, even as the Gilets Jaunes refuse to take responsibility for the provocations on their side.

A pox on both their houses.

In looking at how this started, I’m going to begin in what might seem to be an odd place: the October 18 Facebook video of Jacline Mouraud, age 52, a composer and hypnotherapist (and accordionist and believer in the supernatural). It went viral very quickly, with more than 6 million views in just a few days.  She addressed her video directly to Macron:

. . . When are you going to end the stalking of drivers that you have carried out since you’ve been [in the presidency]?  Because we’ve had it. I’ve put together a small list of what we have been subjected to since you’ve been in office because we’re fed up.  


The new safety inspections–half the cars don’t pass. . . . The hike in the price of gas. . . . Then the hunting down of diesels, is that going to continue?  Because we all had to buy diesel vehicles because they were said at one time to be less polluting. It wasn’t you who said it but you’re the one we’re talking to today (my emphasis).  Now all our diesel vehicles bother you, and we have to change them, but I don’t have a pile of cash; the tiny subsidy offered is not enough.  

Then there’s the increase in the number of radars, everywhere there’s a forest of radars in France.  

But what are you doing with the cash?  That’s the question everyone wants to know. . . . Aside from changing the Elysée china or constructing swimming pools? . . . if that’s where the money is going then things must change  . . . 

And then there are the toll booths at the entry of the large cities . . do you think the French have the money to pay the tolls when entering large cities? People won’t go to the large cities, so there will be a desertification of cities, and people will order everything online.  

The bullshit [conneries] you do.

The carte grise [mandatory registration] of bicycles. . . . 

I wish, with all due respect, that [Jean-Jacques] Bourdin or C-news would invite just once a week, a member of the public who would come to say exactly what they think . . . . I am certain that 80% of the people who are listening to me would be in agreement with me.

Some of her references require some context for those of us not in France.

The Macrons ordered 900 dinner plates and 300 side plates from the famous Sèvres china factory at the relatively modest reported price of 50,000 euros.  Le Canard Enchaîné said the cost was more like 500,000 euros, a figure they obtained by looking through the catalogue and adding up the prices.  The explanation from the Élysées was that the remainder of the cost (which was in total about 500,000 euros, as the Duck had said) came out of the budget of the state factory Sèvres, which in turn is subsidized by the Ministry of Culture–in other words, it came out of another government pocket (The Guardian, June 14, 2018).

The story fulfilled the narrative already building around the “president of the rich.”

The swimming pool was built inside the grounds of the medieval Fort de Brégançon, on the Mediterranean, which serves as the “summer residence” of the president of France.  Macron and his wife have used the place for vacations and entertaining (including state visitors; Theresa May was the first, Vladimir Putin the most recent (RT, August 18, 2019). They built an outdoor pool within the walls. It cost 35,000 euros, which was taken out of the maintenance and renovation fund of 150,000 euros allocated each year to the fort in its status as historical monument (RTL, August 2, 2018).  And that, by the way, was another hit on the Ministry of Culture budget. (See for views of the fort and pool.)

The “forest of radar stations” is designed to enforce the new reduced speed limit of 50 mph (that’s 80km/h) on many roads in France, brought about by an unusual rise in accident deaths (RAC, March 30, 2018).  Many drivers feel a simmering rage in regard to this speed; they have long commutes because they can’t afford to live in the expensive cities or towns where they work.

As for the tolls, it was no accident that some of the early and even continuing actions of the gilets jaunes consisted of taking over the toll booths and letting people go through for free.  Or smashing the radar stations. On November 28, BFMTV reported that over 600 radars had been smashed in the first ten days.  

BFMTV, published on November 28, 2018, on Youtube.

Jacline Mouraud hit a nerve.  She said what everyone could agree with.  She was authentic. She was interviewed far and wide. She became a recognizable media figure. And then she lost favor.

After Act 3, on December 1, 2018, Mouraud denounced the extreme violence of that day, noting that the movement had been a “spontaneous” event at first, but had now gone beyond the control of the participants themselves: “We’re witnessing a tsunami.  The wave is still in the air and we’ll just have to wait for it to crash down again” (The Telegraph, December 8, 2018).

On December 2, she and a few others posted an open letter in Le Journal du Dimanche, announcing the formation of the Gilets Jaunes libres, who were ready to negotiate with the government. They were self-appointed; her group was composed of those who “wanted to be the spokesmen of a constructive anger.”  They noted that some had professed to misunderstand what the gilets jaunes wanted, even to accuse them of “incoherence” in their thinking.  Thus they listed their claims, which they seemed not to have checked with anyone else: an Estates General on fiscal policy; a national conference on social policy; regional debates on these questions; the organization of regular referendums on major social questions; the adoption of proportional representation so that the people would be “better represented” in Parliament.  What they wanted immediately: a freeze on the rise in the carbon tax; and the end of regular automobile inspections (which seems to be a special grievance of hers). They held themselves ready to meet with Prime Minister Édouard Philippe at his convenience (Le Journal du Dimanche, December 1, 2018).  He acted swiftly to arrange a meeting, which was ultimately reduced to a few minutes with one member of the group, as they canceled, claiming that they had been subjected to threats on social media and by telephone, and had been doxed as well. Further, Mouraud had been careless in pulling together her group, several of whom had serious far right connections.

They were also met with a rebuff on Facebook by a “collectif” centered around Eric Drouet and Priscillia Ludosky, which regretted that certain people “were attempting to appropriate” the movement in order to ruin its image, or to advance themselves. They too were willing to speak with the Prime Minister, so long as the meeting was live-streamed (Le Monde, December 2, 2018).

Despite this fiasco, on January 28, 2019, Jacline Mouraud announced the creation of a new political party, Les Émergents (the emerging, or the arisen).  She and her small cadre of followers wished to provide “a new political choice” to France, one with “heart and empathy, common sense and coherence.”  More significantly, she declared that “Phase 1” of the movement was over (the demonstrations), and that she was now passing to “Phase 2,” a period of constructive engagement.  Her group would participate in the Great National Debate that Macron was staging. She followed the announcement with a series of small-bore proposals–lowering sales taxes by one or two percentage points on some things, raising them on others, and so on.  The gilets jaunes as a whole were implicitly told by her to stop the protests. (Jacline Mouraud, January 28, 2019).

On February 9, 2019, and in the context of the Great Debate, she sent to the AFP a manifesto that called for a “remaking” of the Fifth Republic–the broad outlines of which, with a parliamentary system led by a prime minister and the president as a relative figurehead, sounded in some respects like the Third or Fourth Republic.  She wanted this change to be carried out by popular referendum (Le Figaro, February 9, 2019).

In late April 2019, four of the six founding members of Les Émergents resigned from the party because of a lack of transparency, a “cult of personality,” and other grievances (Le Figaro, April 23, 2019).

It was a quick rise and fall.  She seemed at first to embody the everyday, salt-of-the-earth quality of the participants (with a few quirks), as well as the demographics–white, middle-aged and older, from the provinces, with no previous protest experience.  But she violated Gilets Jaunes norms in three ways that are instructive about where the movement has gone, and is going.

First, she attempted to take on the responsibility of a leadership position (twice), however maladroitly.  One of the key features of the Gilets Jaunes is that they have, as they insist, no leaders; it is an entirely ‘horizontal” movement.  This also means that there is no one with the power to negotiate an ending, no one who can find an exit ramp; and that issue has proved to be as difficult for the Gilets Jaunes themselves as it is for the government.

Second, in founding a new party she tried to enter the existing political process which many Gilets Jaunes reject and see as “playing the game” of Macron.  As one of the early Facebook Groups, “Citizens in Anger,” posted in its self-description, “Politicians are fake, the media are fake”( The Local, December 7, 2018).  The rejection of political structures and institutions as well as parties and politicians poses a potential and obvious threat to democratic government.

Third, she forthrightly condemned the violence, as few among the Gilets Jaunes have done (except, arguably, by absenting themselves from the protests).  Some Gilets Jaunes “media figures,” when questioned about the window-smashing and fires, have tended to make the same glib response: the Gilets Jaunes “face violence in their everyday lives,” in the form of lowered relative incomes and anxiety about paying the bills–and therefore they smash things.  Or else, as many have come to believe, the government only listens to them when they smash things.

If Jacline Mouraud represents one of the byways of the movement, Priscillia Ludosky and Eric Drouet were clearly the organizers, founders, and leaders, even though they have not accepted that responsibility: both in their early thirties, she a cosmetics entrepreneur, he a truck driver, married, a couple of kids.

Ludosky is and has remained one of the major “media figures,” as the media has taken to calling those who are undeclared leaders.  Since the beginning of the Gilets Jaunes movement, she has also been involved in ecological protests, and she was part of the “Gilets Jaunes into the Banlieue” Saturday (see earlier post, June 2019). In June she co-authored a Manifeste du Vrai Débat (in response to Macron’s “Great National Debate”).  She also seems a good strategist; on June 15, in response to a question about the dwindling numbers, she suggested, as noted above, that la rentrée in September would see some very surprising developments (she is interviewed at 48s).

“Gilets Jaunes: Priscillia Ludosky promet ‘des actions dérangeantes’ pour la rentrée,” RT France, published June 15, 2019, on youtube.

Even more importantly, the founding document of the movement, as everyone agrees, was the petition posted by Ludosky in May, 2018. (As of August 23, 2:10 pm ET, the signatures numbered 1,252,139). Drivers had been aware of the coming tax for some time. In September 2017, the new budget for 2018 had shown a progressive increase in the tax on fuels for the next few years; the 2017 tax of 30.50 euros per ton would reach 86.20 euros per ton in 2022 (Reuters, September 27, 2017).  Whatever that might mean in real life, it sounds like a lot, and motorists were already feeling the pinch in 2018 with the first installment. Ludosky’s initial petition was an evaluation of the rising cost of fuel from a variety of causes–international demand, the government’s need for revenue, increases in prices by the gas stations (which the association of station owners had denied). 

In October, with the next increase looming, she relaunched her petition, and also posted it on Facebook (Amar and Graziani, pp. 14-15). The government, she noted, was attempting to persuade consumers to buy greener cars and change their driving habits; but the cost of electric and hybrid cars was still too high.  Further, the CLCV (National Association for the defense of Consumers and Producers) had described the increased carbon tax as primarily a matter of raising additional revenue for the government, rather than of protecting the environment. After Act 3, the automatic tax rise was suspended for six months, according to Prime Minister Philippe, to allow for consultations (BBC News, December 5, 2018). Macron overruled the suspension and canceled the tax outright (Amar and Graziani, p. 126). That did not stop the Saturday protests, for they had already moved on to a number of other issues, the financial ras-le-bol of taxes and fees that was nickel-and-dimeing them into poverty–and, more ominously, their sense of powerlessness in controlling their own destiny.

For many people who read Ludosky’s detailed petition, the steep rise in fuel taxes was caused by the government’s need for revenue, and it was easy to connect that need with Macron’s suppression of the ISF, a “social solidarity” tax on the very rich that had been in place, in some form, since the Mitterand years; and from that, to a profound sense of unfairness at the heart of the movement.  In those early days, many historians in particular (including this one) were struck with the relevance of the groundbreaking 1971 article by E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Thompson’s subject was the English grain riots in the premodern era, during which crowds seized grain and then bought it on the spot at what they considered a “fair” price, giving the proceeds to the original owners.  Their actions reflected a traditional sense of social justice, including the right not to starve because of high prices while others profited. The Gilets Jaunes seemed to embody that moral order as well: their economic complaints seemed justified, to almost everyone. Macron had been elected on a centrist platform, supposedly neither left nor right, he had promised to take the actions that he took, but he seemed to have frontloaded his agenda with changes that hurt the middle and working classes and benefited the wealthy “job creators.”  

As early as October 11, Ludosky was promoting her petition and later the November 17 demonstration. She was accepting media interviews; as she notes below, “obtaining more visibility is the next step.” She urged others to speak out as well.

Eric Drouet was the other prominent early figure in the Gilets Jaunes, and he became a social media figure as well. In his first video, below, he explained the goals of the movement and urged everyone to come to Paris on November 17. At the time of this video, it was not clear that the movement would be successful; in recording this, he made himself the face of the high-stakes initiative, and in a sense took responsibility for its success or failure:

“17 novembre on arrive!!!. From la france en colère Eric Drouet, published on October 29, 2018 on Youtube.

Salut to all, this little video as promised before going to work.  There has already been negative thinking, from those who are sharing videos saying that people should  not go to the demonstrations on the 17th, that this won’t do anything. I don’t understand this sort of video. I think they’re not yet up to date about what’s being prepared for the 17th on the national level.  There’s a lot of response, a lot of activity, in the Paris region, but also throughout France. I believe that the count is 8 million [presumably Facebook and other views] at the moment, and that’s already not bad, out of all of France.  We’re three weeks away from the event, and there’s still some time. There is still the media, who don’t frighten me; at the beginning I had a little fear about being trapped on some questions, or whatever, but in fact it comes naturally.

Finally . . . (unclear) there are good reasons to fight.  One of them is fuel, the increase in the price of fuel is what’s made us take a look at certain things.  It’s the continual taxes from day to day which have panicked some people; we have some statements from people who are coming on the 17th because they truly don’t have anything more to lose, and are determined as never before.  We urge everyone to come–taxi drivers, VTCs (chauffeur driven vehicles], police, gendarmes. There are a lot of responses from certain groups, but after all this truly concerns everyone, because it’s not just [a matter of] class, of social class or whatever, it concerns everyone.  It’s not just a particular job, or whatever, it truly concerns everyone.

So November 17 is the day when everything must change.  We must make them understand that we have nothing more to give.  Every day it’s a tax, an excise tax, a fee–so no, it’s no longer possible.

So for Saturday, we chose [Saturday] deliberately, because we want the maximum number of people.  We don’t want people to take off work to come, because a day off isn’t possible in times like these, we don’t want people to lose a day of work.  So we want people to take advantage [of Saturday], for an event that concerns everyone. [Some] believe that even if there are more than ten million, it’s not going to change anything.  But if we remain long enough in Paris and on the different traffic blockages in France, I think that the 17th will truly be a day of significance.

Some don’t understand how we have been able to stir this interest in only two weeks just with social media; it has never been done before, they are already panicking about what is happening.  They don’t understand how we have been able to grow like this with social media, but it’s our means of communication . . . .

[Then he discusses the various means of transport to Paris, the railroads, the buses; he expresses the hope that people who are not going to the demonstration will leave the various forms of transportation open on the 16th-18th to those who are going to the demonstration, and even that the fares might be free on those days.  They are going to the péripherique–the highway around the city–but they are planning to go further, to the Élysée, the home and office of the French President.]

[Going to the Élysée] I encourage the police and the gendarmerie to follow us, and I exclude all casseurs [the ultra-left anarchist militants who have appeared at many French demonstrations to commit acts of violence] or fouteurs de merde [untranslatable, but probably clear enough].  This day is about everyone, the police too, so I hope they will join us. There won’t be any demonstrations against the police, because [I want] everyone to go to the Élysée with us to assert our rights. I think that at a moment when the people are fed up, it’s legitimate to complain.  No one should tell us that we don’t have the right to complain, and that we should just continue to pay the taxes.

So: I expect a big effort from the transports, the unions, by whoever is concerned, to make the transportation free, so that the maximum number of people can join us.

[He repeats his hope that all will join them, including the gendarmerie and the police, in order to prove that all of this concerns them also.  He repeats that casseurs are excluded from the movement],

 . . . because this concerns everybody–businesses, stores, employees, everybody–it’s not one part of the population against the other, but against these policies, this government that kills us a little more each day.  I’ll try to make some videos that explain the day of the 17th a little more; . . . 

It is essential that all go to Paris; Paris is the strategic center, it’s where we can change things, it’s necessary to hold the blocages which are everywhere, but all who can, should go to Paris . . .

[He repeats again the hope that transport to Paris is free; at 7:33 we hear his phone, which he immediately turns off; he repeats his hope that everyone will join.  He supports everyone who is trying to spread the word; he knows someone, unemployed, who has taken it on himself to distribute 10,000 tracts; many people are trying to spread the word.]  

[He picks up his gilet jaune, which he always keeps in the cab of his truck; urges people not to forget their yellow vests; he apologizes for this message, which has been a bit long.]

It was an idealistic message–unrehearsed, unscripted, set in the truck cab where he spends much of his life, interrupted by three phone calls and the “ding” of voicemails.  It was all the more authentic for being unpracticed, and his great hopes for this day could not help but move his audience, even now. He was not opposed to the police, but in fact hoped that they would feel a part of this solidarity of all who were trying to make ends meet.  The only ones not invited were the casseurs, the black blocs, whose purpose was to commit violent acts against businesses and people. 

Drouet emphasized the role of Facebook in their mobilization.  In January, 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was going to start making local news a priority, and with more content shared by local groups as well:  “As we announced earlier this month, we expect the amount of news in News Feed to go down as we focus on meaningful social interactions with family and friends over passive consumption” (, January 29, 2018). It worked.  And it came just in time for the Gilets Jaunes.  The Local in France showed how this change had allowed the growth of “anger groups,” who egged each other on.  They interviewed the moderator, Chloe Tissier, of one of these Facebook groups, “Angry Drivers of Normandy,” with more than 50,000 members: “We use Facebook for absolutely everything–informing ourselves, organizing ourselves. . . . When a barricade is going up and we don’t have enough pallets to set on fire, or food, we put out a post and someone comes to bring them.  Doing this by phone would be impossible. . . .” (The Local, December 7, 2018).  (I sort of love the idea of Facebook as a shortcut to getting barricade-building materials.)

 In the days leading up to the 17th, politicians gingerly weighed in.  Laurent Wauquiez, head of Les Républicains, claimed that the president had “not heard” the French people. He himself would participate in his department of Haute-Loire, but would not block traffic; and he wore a black windbreaker to the event instead of a yellow vest.  Marine Le Pen stated that she would not participate, though extended sympathy and support; her followers would make their own decisions. Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far left La France Insoumise did not make a public call for his supporters to join, but wished the movement success in this “auto-organisation populaire,” emanating from a “righteous anger.”  From the Socialist Party, Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille, said she “understood” the Gilets Jaunes, and suggested that their various demands all stemmed from the same problem, the decline in buying power (Le Monde, November 16, 2018).

Act I was more successful than the Gilets Jaunes could have believed (unless they were hoping for ten million): the first Saturday saw numbers estimated at 287,000 by the Minister of the Interior (Le Monde, November 18, 2018). (The Gilets Jaunes have complained, across the weeks, of undercounting by the Ministry.)  

In the coverage, below, of this first day of the movement, the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, a mobile force specializing in crowd control) were moving the demonstrators away from the Élysée, and trying to avoid contact as much as possible; at 18s we even see one CRS pulling back his fellow policeman who is getting too far ahead. The demonstrators were peaceful (though noisy) and the reporter suggested that most were new to this; few were battle-hardened from previous protests.

Gilets Jaunes: les CRS évacuent les manifestants près de l’Élysée, BFMTV, published on November 17, 2018.

The much anticipated day had come and gone. It had been better than the worst fears about it. So was it over?

The Saturday “Act” structure was not planned from the beginning.  Indeed, the few days following the November 17 demonstration saw many gilets jaunes remaining in the roundabouts with their traffic blockades throughout the country, putting up tents, being fed by volunteers; they were holding their places for fear that they would not be able to get back onto the terrain, and obviously were expecting immediate action by the government.  They continued to block traffic at various times, though that technique was becoming less popular. On Saturday people had honked and waved in support; by Wednesday, not so much (Le Monde, November 23, 2018).  The video below shows tempers fraying between the Gilets Jaunes and drivers as the initial Saturday blockage was continuing through the week. No translation necessary:

“Gilets Jaunes: altercations aux rond-point de la D1000 à Soyaux,” Charente Libre, published November 21, 2018 on Youtube. Soyaux is in the Charente department in southwestern France.

They met, they bonded, they shared their disgust with politics as usual. As Le Huffington Post noted, after a few weeks there was a certain camaraderie, a sense of “family,” a corner bistro, a rendezvous for retirees during the day, a place where everybody knows your name:

“Ces gilets jaunes vosgiens sont toujours là grâce à la ‘famille’ du rond-point,” Le Huffington Post, published on January 30, 2019 on Youtube. Epinal is in Vosges department in northeastern France.

However cynicism and the contempt for politicians and the existing power structures were also reinforced. A traffic blockade at Bar-le-duc barred the voie sacrée to Verdun.  Christophe Méhay, one of those present, had been a member of the CGT (a major union organization) for 25 years, and was finished with the Left: “They have abandoned us in every combat.”  In the last two elections, he had voted for the FN (National Front, now National Rally). A woman at the roundabout had voted for Mélenchon in the 2017 presidential election, and then in the second round had voted “blanc,” or turned in a blank ballot.  She was going over to Marine Le Pen (Le Monde, November 17, 2018), from Far Left to Far Right. A roundabout near Bordeaux was communicating through Facebook, asking for help in picking up children or taking care of other matters. “Christiane” said that she would stay to the end; asked what the “end” was?  “The resignation of Macron!” (Le Monde, November 23, 2018).  

There had been two deaths on this first weekend, both at traffic blockades.  In Savoie, a woman with her daughter had panicked when her car was stopped and the demonstrators began pounding on the roof; she drove into a 63-year-old woman among the protesters, killing her instantly. A 37-year-old man died when his car collided with a truck trying to get around the blockade (Le Monde, November 18, 2019, Le Monde, November 20, 2018).  On Monday, November 19, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner asked the Gilets Jaunes to respect “the principle of free circulation,” and announced that the police throughout France were going to remove the blockades (Le Monde, November 19, 2018).

So now was it over?

A number of sociologists, historians, philosophers, and others weighed in. Jean-Yves Camus, of the Fondation Jean-Jaurès. went straight to the practical. Those who were demonstrating understood climate change and its dangers; they demanded in turn that the government understand their dependence on cars. The government should stop closing or even reopen the secondary rail and bus lines, they needed to stop closing down public services in these “enclaved” areas, they needed to “repopulate the medical deserts” (Le Monde, November 20, 2018). They needed, in short, to reverse the cost-cutting in social expenditures that had marked recent decades.

On November 24, Act II, the numbers were down considerably, though still substantial–106,000, of whom 8,000 were in Paris.  There were new demands to end the impasse by getting rid of the carbon tax. Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party presidential candidate in 2008, called upon Macron to show “good sense and humility,” adding that it sometimes showed more courage to admit that one had made a mistake than to stubbornly maintain it (Le Monde, November 25, 2018).  It still seemed that a way forward was possible.

Then came Act 3, on December 1, 2018. The Arc de Triomphe virtually disappeared in a haze of teargas, luxury cars were torched, banks and other establishments were sacked, and the government was in crisis.

The BFM compilation includes footage from within the crowd, taken on a cellphone; images from a body cam from one of the police, as they rushed to try to save the Arc de Triomphe; and a group of Gilets Jaunes around the tomb of the unknown soldier, as well as a brief interview with one of those who stayed there throughout the day to protect it.

“Les images d’une violence inédite à l’Arc de Triomphe,” BFMTV, published December 4, 2018, on Youtube.

Le Huffington Post showcases property damage, to buildings, banks, and cars left parked along the street. It also clearly reveals that many of those involved in the violence were wearing yellow vests.

“Gilets Jaunes: les images du chaos à Paris,” by Le Huffington Post, published December 1, 2018, on YouTube.

RT is more creative and resonant than the other two, not merely editing footage but, whether deliberately or not, telling a story. It foregrounds police repressive methods and the wounded; then the burning cars (but not the acts of violence that set them ablaze); the digging up of paving stones, evocative of so many revolutions past; the woman exhorting the men from the midst of the action (Liberty leading the People), another revolutionary trope. Finally it ends with the framing of graffiti, “Le Monde est à nous” (The World is Ours), which is taken from La Haine (1995), which quoted it from Scarface (1932).

“Gilets Jaunes: les images fortes de la journée,” from RT France, published December 1 on youtube.

One of the most iconic images from this day was the smashed face of Marianne, within the Arc de Triomphe.

There is, finally, this full footage from the police body cam, of troops running to retake the Arc de Triomphe, with police at the prefecture monitoring the city on their screens. This day led to a rethinking of strategy, from one of stationary defense of certain places to more mobility. According to Minister of Interior Christophe Castaner, “We . . . held some sites that it wasn’t necessary to hold, and were [therefore] not able to intervene, to repel them” (Amar and Graziani, p. 114).

“Affrontements sous l’Arc de Triomphe: les images embarquées des policiers face aux gilets jaunes,” L’Obs, published December 3, 2018, on Youtube.

Frédéric Dupuch, former head of the DSPAP (La Direction de la sécurité de proximité de l’agglomération parisienne), stated that while he had been certain that they would win, “for the first time in my life, I understood that the Republic, the institutions, all the things that are dear to us and that we believed could not be contested for all eternity, could fall from one day to the next, overturned by a hate-filled crowd.” The leaders of the DGPN (Direction Générale de la Police Nationale) whose troops these were, but who surrendered their authority to the Prefect of Police when they are acting in Paris, were extremely angry with the strategy taken by the prefecture; one of them, who did not wish his name to be used, said, “December 1 is a day of humiliation for the National Police, there’s no other word for it” (Le Monde, March 16, 2019).

Two additional deaths had occurred on this day.  One was in Arles, where blockades had created a 10 km bottleneck that had lasted for several hours.  Some of the vehicles had turned off their engines as they waited. One man was killed when he rammed a truck he had not seen, then was hit in turn (Le Monde, December 2, 2018).  The other casualty was Zineb Redouane, age 80, who was closing her windows in Marseille when she was struck by some fragments of a tear gas grenade.  The local procureur (prosecutor) “knowingly” lied to the press when he said she died on the operating table, a result not of the grenade but of her “fragility” in response to medical treatment.  He is now in trouble, and the investigation in her case has been moved to Lyon (Libération, December 3, 2018, Libération, August 21, 2019).

Several days later, Eric Drouet was aggressively interviewed (and this might be one of probably many reasons the group hates BFM): 

“Gilets Jaunes: Éric Drouet propose d”aller à l’Élysée’ samedi pour être ‘écouté,” BFMTV, published on December 6, 2018, on Youtube.

1st questioner, quoting Drouet’s earlier video: “We would like for all to go to the Elysée; on Saturday, we must all be united until the end, and advance toward the Elysée.”  What does that mean? Does that mean you wanted to carry out a putsch?

Drouet: No, but everyone wanted to go there; it’s the symbol of the Republic.

–But to do what?

Drouet: Pardon, but it seemed a good idea, I’ve lived through the three Saturdays . . .

–But to do what?  You arrive in front of the Élysée, what do you do?

Drouet: Go inside.

–You go inside?!  Let’s be clear: that’s why there are police in front of the Élysée, to prevent you from going inside.

2nd questioner: But why? What do you do [inside]?

Drouet: It’s the symbol of the Republic, people wanted to go there, that’s all. To be heard, that will be the only solution, that’s all.

After the interview, Eric Drouet made a video ( Eric Drouet, December 7, 2018) to explain that he was neither an anarchist nor a casseur; he hadn’t wanted to break everything in the Élysée, but to talk; he had never been violent, and he wasn’t going to start tomorrow (December 8, Act 4); as always, he was bringing his mother with him to the demonstrations.  The cry of “Macron démission” (Macron resign) had not occurred to him at first; now, as a result of the last few weeks, it had become a real mot d’ordre (watchword).  Macron hadn’t deigned to speak to them; the government hadn’t budged, until after the violence.  (He was referring to the cancellation of the tax increase.) There were many other problems with other social inequities as well, including the retirees, the handicapped, and thus the repeal of the carbon tax alone would not keep them off the streets.  Finally, what had happened during Act 3 was not his fault; he had called people out to demonstrate, not to pillage.

On the day following Act 3, an editorial in Libératiion noted that the government, in its public statements, was trying to draw a line between casseurs and the gilets jaunes, “but the line that they try to trace is porous.  The violent acts are also the work of radicalized protesters.” They urged France to accept the invitations of Laurent Berger and Philippe Martinez, heads of the CFDT and CGT unions respectively, to negotiate the basis for a series of talks around le pouvoir d’achat, or buying power.  That would force the hand of the Gilets Jaunes, who would then have to allow someone to take the lead.  It was likely, the editors believed, that some of them, if presented with this opportunity, would be willing to take it on (Libération, December 2, 2018).  But to many Gilets Jaunes, the unions were simply another part of the power structure they despised. Two reporters on the scene quoted one of the demonstrators: “The unions, they’re like the politicians.  They fill their pockets. There’s only us. We have to take this f**king government, we have to take it” (Amar and Graziani, p. 92).  

Libération at this time also raised the issue of use of force on the part of the police, noting that the numbers of rounds fired in the capital on December 1 were “historic.”  Using official numbers, they found that the CRS and CSI (Compagnie de securisation et d’intervention) forces alone accounted for more than 8,000 teargas grenades, 1,193 rounds of LBDs (weapons that shoot rubber bullets), 1040 grenades des désencerclement (fragmentation grenades that disperse rubber pellets), and 39 of the grenades known as GLI-F4s, notable for containing an explosive charge of 25 grams of TNT.  The prefecture had not released numbers for any of the other forces, and the gendarmerie had refused to disclose this information as well (Libération, December 3, 2018).  

The use of force would soon become the story.


Amar, Cécile, and Graziani, Cyril. Le Peuple et le Président. Michel Lafon, 2019.

Thompson, E. P. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past & Present, no. 50 (1971): 76-136.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *