My first weekend in Paris, I marched with the Gilets Jaunes. It started by accident. I’m sympathetic with anyone who’s frustrated by the unholy marriage of wealth and politics anywhere in the world, but I hadn’t set out to march with them. I hadn’t even known they were marching. I’m in Paris right now to work on my research at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, and I was taking my Saturday to visit the Musée d’Art Moderne.
But as I approached the Quai Saint-Michel in front of Notre Dame, I met with a line of yellow-vested protesters. I’d read about the Gilets Jaunes in the news. I’d discussed them with my friends in the anthropology department. I’d even seen some of the damage they’d caused when I celebrated New Year’s Eve at the Champs Elysée. Somehow, it never occurred to me that I might actually run into them. But here I was, watching the march go by.
I joined for several reasons. First, it seemed convenient. They were going my way – following the route along the Seine that I was taking to the art museum. I could have crossed the river or taken the metro, but I joined because I was curious. I wanted to do more than glance at their signs as they walked by. I wanted first-hand knowledge of what it was all about, to read the messages on their hand-decorated vests, to eavesdrop on their conversations. As an anthropologist, I study humans. As an archaeologist, my work is full of the power dynamics of the past. How could I not at least observe?
Later, I read more about those marches. I read about a ministry break-in and vehicles, dumpsters, and a river barge burned. I can’t speak to any of that, because I didn’t see it. All I can do is tell what I saw.
What I saw was a very different picture from what I’d seen in the news before arriving in Paris. The atmosphere among the group I joined was defiant – chants of “Macron démission!” (Macron resignation) sprang up frequently – but it wasn’t violent. The protesters were of all ages. Many seemed to be alone, some were in small groups that chatted between chants. Some were parents marching with their young children. Many had decorated their yellow vests with drawings and slogans, some quite artistic, many poignant. People identified themselves as retired, as fathers, as women, as religious – the unifying thread was anger at runaway greed that would blithely harm others to further its own ends and at a government perceived to be complicit.
I saw no violence that was started by the protestors, though there could have been some that was out of my line of sight. I did see a few young men wearing masks – a gold Guy Fawkes mask sticks out in my mind as overly Hollywood – but I never saw them do anything. Many shops along the route had been closed, and some anxious proprietors stood at their doors and watched, but I saw no windows smashed or property destroyed. What I saw was a peaceful protest.
We were getting close to the Musée d’Orsay when I decided I had seen enough and was ready to head on to the art museum. I started to speed up to break through the crowd when I noticed smoke on the bridge up ahead. The crowd was getting thicker. I kept pushing until there were too many people to push through, which was when I realized we were blocked. A line of police in riot gear blocked the bridge, and I assume there was one in front of us blocking the Quai Anatole-France. This is also when I realized the smoke was tear gas. The police on the bridge had already used a canister or two and were now deploying several more. The marchers called for the protestors on the front line to push. They did. The police used their batons.
A cloud of tear gas came toward those of us who were backed up against the wall surrounding the Grande chancellerie de l’ordre de la Légion d’honneur. It wasn’t bad where I was, but it was at this moment that I realized why several people had been marching in surgical masks. I turned away from the cloud and noticed a small woman in her sixties pressing into the wall with her eyes squinted and her glove to her face. I had nothing to offer her, and I felt foolish and unprepared.
My own glove over my face, I decided it was time to turn back. I retreated to the Musée d’Orsay, where police stood ready to block the protestors who would inevitably come that way. It was disconcerting to see the shields and helmets and batons lined up outside that elegant building with its trove of Monets and Van Goghs. I didn’t stay to contemplate, however; the marchers were already coming my way and I was quite satisfied with my first experience of tear gas. I politely asked the police if I could pass. I spoke in French, but with my American accent and lack of a yellow vest, they barely looked at me as they waved me through.
Politicians are confounded by the Gilets Jaunes because they have no real leaders and no clear demands, but that makes sense to me. How can you list your demands when it isn’t a single policy, but an entire system you feel has failed you? Why should there be a leader when it isn’t one person’s agenda but a whole people’s frustration that’s being expressed? I said I joined the march because it happened to be going my way. The phrase sticks with me, and I wonder how true it might be.