I was in Paris during the yellow vest demonstrations. While I wasn’t surprised at the violence, I was surprised at how unexpectedly that beautiful city turned ugly.
The violent tableau of modern Parisian streets has been easy to comprehend. The brushstrokes obvious, the motivation extremely clear. The inspiration taken from the great masters of previous efforts. The vibrant wave of yellow against the grey of smoke, the white of tear gas and the blue of police siren felt familiar, yet somehow new.
Over a hundred people have been arrested as demonstrations over rising fuel prices turn violent in Paris. https://t.co/sEyp4gPSkW
— Twitter Moments (@TwitterMoments) December 1, 2018
In the days since, their anger enabled ours, raising the pulse and shaking the fist of the unaffected, those safe behind computers, those free of the constraints of irony. The Arc de Triomphe was clearly blackened by protest, an effigy to organise violence wounded by organised violence. Twitter wrung their hands at the visage of an antique musket cast to the floor. How dare they damage a war memorial. Again, irony. C’est tragedie.
The groups also plundered the interior of the famous monument.pic.twitter.com/9WLds05Ow5
— EHA News (@eha_news) December 2, 2018
The French, after all, made the visceral protest vogue, whether it was to lop the heads off their heads of state, or to fight back against an equally autocratic force. It’s worth mentioning that the French also know a knowing reference, as they adorned the monument with the maxim “We have chopped off heads for less than this.”
Paris protesters smashed this statue of the Marianne, a symbol of the French Republic, inside the Arc de Triomphe. Protesters also damaged other statues in the monument and destroyed the gift shop. https://t.co/yEXH5OdROT pic.twitter.com/9rHQt23d7Q
— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) December 2, 2018
Admittedly, the vicissitudes of the French working class didn’t include me. I was able to leave. I was unattached, a tourist. But being unattached at the crucial pivot gave me a rather unique perspective. Both in the day before and the day after. While I wasn’t surprised by the violence, I was surprised by the surprise of it. The night before was nothing like the day after. The evening before I blithely strolled around that street, around that monument, making sense of the towering marble surrounded by the perpetual circling of Parisian traffic. It felt normal. I took the lyrics of the Kaizer Chiefs as gospel, in if there was to be a riot, you’d be able to predict it. There’d be signs, an angry undercurrent, a vibration. Something in the air, a series of testing jabs before the round proper. By accident, I found myself on the streets of the shire that day in Cronulla, a day when racism wore a cape and train carriages became the arena where long-running issues would be settled. Stepping off the train that morning, something felt wrong. The air that day provoked my flight tendency. Paris didn’t have that. Admittedly, I was only there to holiday. My connections with the working class were limited to the few I knew, and the many that filled the space in drinking establishments, in restaurants. Despite this, everything seemed normal, the revelry was palpable, the mask of normalcy gave no firm example of what was to come.
Burnt-out cars in central Paris a day after anti-government protesters torched dozens and clashed with riot police, as thousands took part in fresh “#yellowvest” protests against high fuel taxes https://t.co/V7lnHCp8Dq #GiletsJaunes
— AFP news agency (@AFP) December 2, 2018
The day after, on the same street, was entirely different. The clashing, writhing mass clashing with the ribbon of the establishment was eerily reminiscent of the division of head/tail lights that usually light the Champs-Élysées. Venturing up that street with the tail of the crowd, my conversational French became completely obsolete. That otherworldly scene moved beyond language. Faces contorted, fists bunched. The air possessed two clear aspects, extreme danger, and the romance of change. You somehow felt that the truncheon, or shield, or ambulance would not be for you. The march through the Tuileries worked as an exercise in comparison. Three days prior, it was deserted, the pre-winter chill crispness refined the border of the image, staid, albeit impossibly manicured, the looming marble of the Palace to the left, the glass ant hill of the Louvre ahead; it was a place to take your lover by the hand, and discuss the outlines of your love, a mere horse-and-carriage ride short of an unexpected holiday pregnancy. Suddenly, it was soundtracked by unattached police siren and the furious murmur of collective angst.
The Arc de Triomphe was vandalized and had one of its sculpture’s smashed by protesters while cars burned outside the Jeu de Paume and Orangerie. https://t.co/I1MXbjfVU5
— hyperallergic (@hyperallergic) December 4, 2018
The gap between the poor and everyone else in Paris is obvious. Even the most entitled tourist can see the real face of that city, the surface need not be scratched too deeply. It walls the architecture, it carpets the cobblestone of the arrondissements. The fragrance of Paris is equal parts Chanel No. 5 and bowels of the Metro. There’s no greater example that the divide on her most famous street, the one chosen by the demonstrators. The pristine virginal aqua sheen of Tiffany’s illuminates the reddening skin of the prostrate addled figures underneath. The glitz of famous French names inadvertently promote the homeless. There are thousands of Euros exchanged for handbags, but not a crumb for those who quietly kneel outside.
It’s easy to deride the violence, and indeed, focus on it. Despite the glamour, Paris is a working-class city. It was the same place that flung open its doors to house strangers during the Bataclan attacks. It’s a city that looks after its own, and doesn’t. If anything, Paris is both the lights atop the Eiffel Tower, and the flickering of flaming rag atop a Molotov.