To the outside world there is something quintessentially French about protesting. This time around, the trigger for the street havoc was the rise in fuel prices, specifically a duty hike on diesel. The French themselves have lost count of how many strikes, demonstrations, protests, and riots they have had in the past decades. This time, somehow, something feels different. The protests of the yellow vests, or gilets jaunes, has splintered into an umbrella anger gathering underneath a tempest of grievances, some as old as the corrupt French way of governing and some others as new as the neglect of the local population at the expense of the pampering of immigrants.
Walking side by side with thousands of protestors in Paris, surfing through a capricious labyrinth of tear gas canisters shot by the antiriot police, it is hard not to palpate a different mood compared to your run of the mill French strike. A je ne sais quoi, if you may. Sure, French aren't fond of paying more for goods and services (who is?), but in this occasion there's a sense of betrayal among the protesters; an exasperation towards a leader who started his reign with the left foot by anointing himself as "Jupiterian", a Napoleon of sorts: too smart to lower himself to interact with the hoi polloi, the riffraff. Where is the smugness now, monsieur Macron? Are you ready for another photo op with a risqué dance troupe?
Michel, a 50 something, shyly silver haired truck driver from Calais, soaks his bandana with the remaining of a water bottle, his eyes still reddish from the gas. He shouts between coughs, in a thick port accent peppered with curses, that France always has had crooks as leaders but, he says, they used to pander to the people with working class deference and the usual populist wink. When he saw Macron on TV looking at the troops under his command, Michel says, he caught a glimpse of a spoiled brat with an ego way superior to his actual life experience. His personal plight with immigrants attacking trucks passing cargo between Calais and Dover don't help Michel's cheerfulness, and even less, he assures, to see the French leader embarrassingly serve as the lapdog of Angela Merkel in her jihad against the likes of Hungary and Poland, i.e. tiny Davids facing the Goliath of Brussels. "Can you imagine this little bastard commanding a European army for that German bitch?" exclaims Michel, growing frustrated by the discomfort of his increasingly reddish eyes.
"Have you protested before?" I ask him. Michel shrugs a bit, then shows a line of yellow teeth in a quintessentially French half grin, half chuckle. He's impressively educated, or so one believes when he goes on about Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees and how private vices may boost public benefits via consumption. However, he sees himself removed from that process if he's unable to aid consumption once his employer downsizes due to insecurity and rising costs. We lost touch momentarily after a new gas canister is shot above our heads. We reunite after a few minutes by the rue Lincoln. Only then I realize that we have been pushed back over four blocks since we met around rue Galilée; always in fear of going blind or being hit by a rubber bullet which the antiriot robocops are so fond of shooting, yellow vest or not. I am hesitant to mention to Michel the fantastic macarons sold at Ladurée, right behind us, perhaps for fear of sounding way too posh for a working man. But he's no stranger to the delights of fine pastry and points at the shop's closed entrance. "Fine delicacies they sell here" he exclaims as he pulls out a pack of cigarettes. He offers me one and I decline with a wave of my hand. He nods. "Yes, I have protested before but it isn't easy because I am usually on the road" he says, puffing silently from his filterless cigarette. Then goes on. "There was a time when these events were a chance to see one's friends too, but it is too mixed now and I see a lot of unfamiliar faces. Lots of kids."
Michel is right. A quick glance at the crowd, swinging in its mood from angry to defeated and then back, shows all colors, ages, and attires off the French social firmament. But mostly kids, as he calls them. "Do you think they're here because the fuel prices affect them?" I ask, trying to pin down if there's a generational schism. He doesn't disappoint. "It affects us all, of course!" he exclaims, changing the cigarette to the other hand so as to wave his right hand's finger and emphasize his point, "but I sense that their frustration is elsewhere." Some youngsters have started a small fire close to us, more to keep warm than to chase away the police. The armored vehicles with the European flag are still a few days from entering the scene. I can see the dancing light of the improvised street pyre drawing the contours of Michel's eye wrinkles as I haven't seen them before. Is he over 50 or just too roughed up by hard work and life? "Look, a decade or so ago my children saw this whole union thing with rosy eyes, dreaming of a study exchange elsewhere in Europe and then to work and travel and marry someone exotic... that was Europe for them" he says, lowering his voice at the end of the sentence, as if realizing that the smoke of the riot police canisters evaporates slower than one's dreams. Then goes on in the same tone. "But once you take the train a few times and end up behind a desk serving Germans or English, and take a few Romanians to bed, they discover that what their grandfather had they will not." I wonder if he refers to France as an idea, a shared space with ungraspable things that belong just to them. "Do you think their country is the same than yours and your ancestors?" Michel twitches a bit. He's appears uncomfortable with the question. "I am not a National Front guy" he says quickly and turns around with nervous eyes. "Of course not, I didn't mean it that way" I tell him, guessing where this may lead to.
The DIY barricades in the street mushroom. It's chaos but (still) a controlled one. Small groups go up and down the street, either in the direction of the Arc de Triomphe or the Place de la Concorde. Small groups of police chase up and down. It's like herding cats now that the night has unrolled and the frenetic protesting of the morning is a distant memory. Then Michel breaks his silence after a few pensive minutes. His tone and speed have slowed down. "I drive a truck between countries, filled with goods, my friend, so it would be foolish of me to be sentimental about the past, yet..." he pauses, then hits the end of his cigarette, arching his eyebrows as he exhales; "this is not a country I recognize anymore. Grandpa has no farm anymore!" It is costing him way too much effort to pick his words. I am a stranger after all. I gamble a bit of personal information to lube the chat into more comfortable waters. I tell him of a friend whose father, three decades or so ago, brought from his family farm jugs of homemade currant wine, pâté, and cheese every time he visited the city, and he wasn't able to do so anymore. He sighs. The pyre closest to us has faded almost completely and I cannot see Michel's eyes as clearly as before. Is that sparkle in his eyes made of nostalgia or anger?
"So, what's next?" I ask him, having heard that there's talk about approaching the Tuileries Garden. Michel has one last drag of his smoke and sighs. "I don't know, I don't think anyone has a plan, really, but we're just angry" he responds, finally, his eyes visible to me at the intervals of the burnt tires right behind us. Truly, at ground level it is impossible to identify a clear leader and that created a lot of confusion regarding what the French are up to. There has been some looting (though not at the hands of yellow vests, mind you) and the anger has spread beyond France and into the Netherlands and Belgium, where even the European Parliament building was under siege by protestors. Over 400 hundred arrested. Some of us sense that people are starting to realize where their true enemies are. After all, it is the European Union, hand in hand with the United Nations and similar supranational behemoths, the one pushing for the blurring of the lines defining the nation-state, i.e. the last bastion of Western political culture achievements. People don't seem to like that and even less if they're poor, seeing how even more poor are rammed down their throats as cheaper labor and further dilution of what they cherish as truly theirs.
"Michel, let's be honest, do you want to see the European Union fall?" I ask, growing bold as the exhaustion rears its ugly head. He may be tired too because his response is the least cagey since we met at the barricades: "And be the bitches of the Germans again?" He then pauses, chuckles slightly, and continues. "Well, we are their bitches anyway, though this time they aren't coming with tanks but via Brussels."