France's Yellow Jackets don't want to be forgotten

NotreDameYJParis – Holding signs that read "What about the poor," and chanting "justice for all," France's so-called “yellow vest” protestors hit the streets of Paris and other French cities Saturday despite the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, vowing to persevere in what they called "Ultimatum 2."

"These (protests) are very important for social justice," said Jean-Baptiste Redde, at the protest Saturday on Republique square in central Paris. "We have to help the poor, the disabled, those who don't have roofs to live under. It's important to hold on."

The French capital quickly became the epicenter of Saturday’s violence, with hundreds arrested and dozens injured as violence broke out between demonstrators and police, upended transport and sealed off entire sections of the city.

While the protests started out peacefully, almost with a carnival like atmosphere, violence erupted as demonstrators approached the Place de la Republique. People threw rocks and lit trash cans at the police who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

It was the 23rd demonstration by the loosely organized, disparate movement that is mainly united in its resentment over the lack of economic quality in France and displeasure with President Emmanuel Macron, whom many see as 'president of the rich."

The grassroots movement that started on social media has proven to be one the biggest tests to Macron’s presidency, with protestors refusing to let this week’s fire at Notre Dame pause their demonstrations even as the president and French political parties put aside politics and halted campaigning for the upcoming European Parliament elections.

In fact, in some ways the fire Monday inflamed some protestors because of the hundreds of millions of euros raised immediately afterward to restore the 850-year old Notre Dame. Some of that money was pledged by French billionaires such as luxury goods Kering CEO Francois-Henri Pinault and LVMH head Bernard Arnault as well as French companies such as oil giant Total.

“I would like us to get back to reality,” said Ingrid Levavasseur, one of the informal leaders of the movement, speaking on French broadcaster, BFM TV last week. Levavasseur said it was important to criticize “the inertia of large companies and (billionaires) in the face of social misery as they display their ability to raise a crazy amount of money in a single night for Notre Dame."

Her comments and others were widely shared on social media. Many agreed. “If they are able to give tens of millions to rebuild Notre Dame, then they should stop telling us that there is no money to counter social inequality,” Philippe Martinez, head of France’s CGT workers union told French radio last week.

That sentiment was reflected on the streets of Paris Saturday.

"Billions should also be given to the poor, to help the environment, to promote biodiversity," said Redde," holding a sign that read, "Millions for Notre Dame – and what about the poor?" "But Macron and this government only wants to help the rich, so we can't stop."

'A pointless debate'

Even so, the fire at Notre Dame, which is revered by the French – Catholic, Muslims and Jews – as part of France's cultural and historic legacy, set off a national outpouring of grief. As a result, the anger at the donations set off a backlash within the government and among the public.

"It is a pointless debate," said Culture Minister Franck Riester, interviewed on RMC radio. "To say, 'there's too much money for Notre Dame and there is need elsewhere' – of course there is need elsewhere, for health care, the fight against climate change. But Notre-Dame is not only a collection of old stones. It's a part of our identity."

France’s Interior Minister Christophe Castaner was more pointed: "The rioters have not been visibly moved by what happened at Notre Dame,” he said angrily, soon before the ministry announced that France would deploy 60,000 police officers Saturday, and prevent any protestors from getting near Notre Dame and the Champs-Elysees, where in March, they set fire to a bank, smashed the front of a renowned restaurant and looted stores on the Champs-Elysees.

The public, meanwhile, already growing weary of the protestors – recent polls show that support for the yellow vests has dropped to about half from 80 percent. And an Odoxa poll released on Friday indicated that a slim majority of French wanted the demonstrations Saturday suspended.

"I'm tired of this," said a clothing shop owner in the Marais, a major tourist district just next to Republique square, told Al Jazeera privately. "For five months, we have had almost no business – the tourists are not coming here because of the protests."

Notre Dame even gave pause to such within the movement. Many in the movement on Tuesday called for protests to be delayed in deference to the 'national tragedy' at Notre Dame.

Still ‘too little, too late’

Monday’s fire broke out just an hour before Macron was scheduled to give a televised address detailing a series of policy reforms in response to the yellow vest protesters and their grievances. The speech was cancelled last minute, and set for next Thursday.

Even so, copies of the taped speech sent to reporters were leaked: In it, Macron promised to lower taxes for the middle class, reconsider his decision to cut a ‘fortune solidarity tax’ on top earners, and make adjustments to the lowest pensions for inflation.

Macron was also set to announce the closure of the highly prestigious École nationale d'administration, a college that trains public servants. Many have criticized the school as a place reserved for the elite.

The Odoxa poll showed that the majority of French citizens supported these changes. But many yellow vest demonstrators and others continued their chant of ‘too little, too late,’ and vowed to continue protesting for weeks to come.

"Pfff – blah, blah, blah," was the reaction of Catherine Lopis, when asked about Macron's plans. "I voted for him (Macron) – had no choice but him or (far right leader Marine) Le Pen. But he isn't interested in helping anyone other than bankers – our problems are not his problems so it is easy for him to turn away."

Jérôme Rodrigues, a leader in the movement said on Saturday that the postponement of Macron's speech was calculated.
"The world stops turning when there is a fire in France?" he wondered, while being interviewed on French television. "I think it was a government strategy to get some information leaked to buy time to then better sell us his new program, changes he wants to make that we are denouncing here at the demonstration."

'Protestors have a point'

“These protests aren’t going to end any time soon,” said French radio personality and political commentator Jean-Michel Aphatie.

But without concrete goals and a clear leader, Aphatie said the movement is struggling and will continue to, to be effective and bring concrete change.

“The only thing they know for sure is that they want to go out every Saturday to protest,” he said, referring to the fact that the protests have run continuously every Saturday since Nov. 17, even as they have grown smaller.

Even so, he added that the protest did have legitimacy: The French have seen their purchasing power decline over the years and many are struggling to make ends meet.

“It’s difficult to say the protests are no longer legitimate because of the Notre Dame fire,” Aphatie said. “Life goes on. And so do the yellow vests."

Photo: April 20, 2019 - Paris, France - A protester holding a sign reading "Millions for Notre Dame de Paris. What about the poor?"
Credit: Jabeen Bhatti/ ARA Network Inc. (04/20/19)

Story/photo publish date: 04/20/19

A version of this story was published in Al Jazeera.
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