There isn't a fine line between glamour and gloom when approaching Paris by train.
Not so long ago the prelude to arriving at la Ville Lumière through Gare de l'Est was a saddening tour of heavily graffitied neighborhoods, the stench of urine mixed with waste from kebab eateries, and a sense of impending social and economic doom. The reward was worth it, though. Once you entered Paris proper, with its equally vile and silky atmosphere, the city would give you so much more in return no matter how high your prior expectations were. Today, the glamour is gone. All the novels and movies that have sold you Paris as sophisticated have been replaced, first, by the images of banlieues where immigrant youth torch cars and chase police away, and, second, with the carousel of beatings, gas canisters, and flash balls that Macron's police apparatus have generously distributed among the gilets jaunes, the famous yellow vests.
Along the train ride the wagons are patrolled by security forces with automatic weapons --not exactly the enticing crescendo leading to a shopping spree. The Fashion Week has avoided Paris. The Shopping Mall Association calculates that the 5 weeks of yellow vest protests have set their sales back by €2 billion. Trying to save his head and stop the impending revolution, Emmanuel Macron is offering a package of minimum wage rises worth €10 billion. That's 6 months of lost profits for French shopping malls. Not few translate Macron's crumbles as his "let them eat cake!" moment. The so-called "Marshal Pétain of the brave new globalized world" is either stingy, clueless, or is really at the last hole for tightening the public finances' belt.
At Gare de l'Est the sense of military occupation intensifies. There must be hundreds of security forces cutting through the clacking sound of shoes going up and down the hall. It's mostly locals doing their daily commute, though. As I emerge from the station I fail to see tourists packing the eternal Cafe de l'Est right across the street. The usual buzz of Paris seems gone, replaced by a tense atmosphere where the stereotypical Parisian brusqueness has been displaced by a nervy alertness.
I turn right and pass Saint-Vincent de Paul church on my way to Boulevard de la Chapelle. It doesn't escape my thoughts that a few blocks away there's a subway station named Stalingrad. I have agreed to meet Mounira at Louise-Michel square and she's there by the time I arrived. To my surprise, she's not smoking. We have known each other for quite some time and she always was a chainsmoker. "Are the cigarettes too expensive now?" I ask, while I reach out to her cheek for a pair of greeting kisses. She's not too cheery, though. She tells me that days before a friend of hers got a head injury from a flash-ball. The news caught me by surprise. So-called flash-balls are an antiriot weapon resembling a tiny mortar that shoots rubber balls weighting around 100 grams. The device isn't effective at a range above 30 meters and is supposed to be non-lethal. And, France being France, there are tons of laws, regulations, and bureaucratic directives on how to use such a weapon in order to disperse crowds, one of them being never to fire to the head but to the legs instead. Mounira seems to be reading my thoughts. "You're such a dreamer... of course they aim at the head!" she says, displaying one of the saddest grins I've seen on her. We start walking together in search for a takeaway coffee.
My last time in Paris was when the yellow vest protests were in their dawn. Back then, I had the fortune of sharing some tense moments with a man named Michel while we performed a sort of street ballet: we would retreat away from Champs-Élysées as teargas canisters would go off near us and then approach it again as the wind would blow some passages through the smoke curtains. It was not an easy time but it seems extremely tamed, even romantic, compared to what this has turned into just 5 weeks later. Paris is not the hotbed of yellow vests anymore. It gets the most international coverage, of course, and the long end of the police stick as a consequence. But the movement isn't Parisian anymore. Marseille, Montpellier, Lyon, Toulouse, Lille, Nantes, and many other cities are seeing their share of protest with its corresponding police countering. Roadblocks are happening this weekend all over the Southwestern border with Spain. In Bordeaux, some days ago, a firefighter was put into a coma by a police-shot flash-ball.
"What has changed since the start, in your opinion?" I ask Mounira, as we near a place where we can grab a coffee in a paper cup and continue our walk. She mulls a response for what feels like an eternity. In her mind, this isn't about fuel prices or even cost of living anymore. Few in Europe know it but France has an epidemic of farmers committing suicide. And what my friend comments connects directly to that. Well informed as they are, French know that the crisis among their farmers may trace back to 2015 when the European Union ended diary quotas which were aimed at fencing overproduction, dropping the price of milk below sustenance at the same time that Brussels sanctioned Russia and, with it, a very important market for milk nosedived. As farms closed, then, cows went to the slaughterhouse, creating a domino effect on meat prices. Any economic or international politics considerations aside, the point is that the French connect dots and reach the conclusion, whether right or wrong, that they are not masters of their own destiny.
"It's not too different than what is happening in the United States or across Europe" Mounira tells me, finally grabbing her first cigarette since we met. The media and the elites aren't trusted anymore. They are perceived as wreaking havoc by bringing more immigrants who cheapen the labor and overburden the government expenditure, compromising everyone's safety net. Politicians, specially Macron, are seen as extremely arrogant while, at the same time, openly submissive to the dictates of the European Union. "This is not our France anymore", she tells me, and, in a sense, they are right. While Paris and other big French cities were always the crown jewels of the country, France used to have a vibrant life outside the urban centers. Not anymore, though. And the mushrooming of protests by the gilets jaunes are, in a way, the awakening of formerly dormant regions.
Finally, Mounira dons her vest and we join today's march. "What do you expect to achieve today?" I ask her, as I put on a baseball hat with the word "press" expecting that it would protect me somehow. She greets a few of those already in the march, not effusively but with a knowing nod, as fellow combatants next to whom she has already shed blood. She fixes my hat a bit and then responds, softly yet determined: "For something to change. Anything, really." She pauses then sighs. "And to not get killed in the process."