Protestors throw projectiles in a burning barricade during a demonstration of yellow vests (gilets jaunes) against rising costs of living they blame on high taxes in Toulouse, southern France. Image Credit: AFP


At the bare bottom of Florian Dou’s shopping cart at the discount supermarket, there was a packet of $6 (Dh22) sausages and not much else. It was the end of last week, and the end of last month. At that point, “my salary and my wife’s have been gone for 10 days,” he lamented.

How to survive those days between when the money runs out and when his paycheck arrives for his work as a warehouse handler has become a monthly challenge. The same is true for so many others in GuEret, a grim provincial town in south-central France. And it has made Dou angry.

So he used what money he had left and drove 250 miles to join the fiery protests Saturday in Paris, where police moved in with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets. “We knew they were sent in to get rid of us,” he said, “and believe me, they were not into Mr Nice Guy.” But he vows they are not going anywhere.

The “yellow vest” protests he is a part of present an extraordinary venting of rage and resentment by ordinary working people across France, aimed at the mounting inequalities that have eroded their lives. The unrest began in response to rising gas taxes and has been building in intensity over the past three weeks, peaking Saturday.

With little organisation and relying mostly on social media, they have moved spontaneously from France’s poor rural regions over the past month to the banks of the Seine, where they have now become impossible to ignore.

The scene: Worst riots since 1968

Paris tourist sites reopened, workers cleaned up broken glass and shop owners tried to put the city on its feet again Sunday, a day after running battles between yellow-vested protesters and riot police left dozens injured and caused widespread damage to the French capital. The man at the focus of protesters’ anger, President Emmanuel Macron, broke his silence to tweet his appreciation for the police overnight, but pressure mounted on him to propose new solutions to calm the anger dividing France. A spokesman said Sunday that Macron would address the nation early in the week.

The face-off with French riot police saw hurling projectiles, torching cars and vandalising shops and restaurants in a fourth weekend of unrest that has shaken Macron’s authority. The weekend before, the French capital witnessed its worst unrest since the 1968 student riots.

As night fell and many demonstrators started returning home, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said there had been about 10,000 protesters in Paris by early evening and some 125,000 across the country. Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse and other cities also saw major clashes between protesters and police on Saturday. “The situation is now under control,” Castaner said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.

He said about 120 demonstrators and nearly 20 police officers had been injured nationwide. Nearly 1,000 people had been arrested, 620 of them in Paris, after police found potential weapons such as hammers and baseball bats on them.

The government last week cancelled a planned rise in taxes on petrol and diesel in a bid to defuse the situation but the protests have morphed into a broader anti-Macron rebellion. Retailers have lost an estimated one billion euros in revenue since the protests erupted and shares in tourism-related shares saw their worst week in months.

“Very sad day & night in Paris,” US President Donald Trump said in a Twitter message. “Maybe it’s time to end the ridiculous and extremely expensive Paris Agreement and return money back to the people in the form of lower taxes?”

The trigger: A mountain of inequality

But if it was the shattered glass and burned cars along Rue Rivoli or Avenue Haussmann in Paris that finally got Macron’s attention, the movement — named for the roadside safety vests worn by demonstrators — has in fact welled up from silent towns like GuEret, an administrative centre of 13,000 people, lost in the small valleys of central France.

Far from any big city, it sits in one of the poorest departments of France, where the public hospital is the biggest employer. The cafe in the main square is empty by midafternoon. The hulks of burned-out cars dot the moribund train station’s tiny parking lot, abandoned by citizens too poor to maintain them.

In places like these, a quiet fear gnaws at households: What happens when the money runs out around the 20th? What do I put in the refrigerator with nothing left in the account and the electricity bill to pay? Which meal should I skip today? How do I tell my wife again there is no going out this weekend?

The stories: When money runs out

The stories of Dou’s neighbours who also joined the protests were much like his own. Inside Laetitia Depourtoux’s freezer were hunks of frozen meat, a twice-a-year gift from her farmer-father, and the six-member family’s meat ration.

On these cold nights, Joel Decoux’s oven burned the wood he chopped himself because he can’t afford gas for heating. It is not deep poverty, but ever-present unease in the small cities, towns and villages over what is becoming known as “the other France,” away from the glitzy Parisian boulevards that were the scene of rioting this weekend

“We live with stress,” said Fabrice Girardin, 46, a former carpet-layer who now looks after other people’s pets to get by. “Every month, at the end of the month, we say, ‘will there be enough to eat?”’

The roots: A provincial French writer

Since the acidic portrait of GuEret in novels by a famous native son, 20th century writer Marcel Jouhandeau, the town is used to being mocked as the epitome of provincial backwardness. The yellow vest protesters, the descendants of those who inspired Jouhandeau’s characters, can now be found waiting at the roadblocks as you come into town — truck and school-bus drivers, nurses, out-of-work electricians, housewives, warehouse handlers, part-time civil servants and construction workers on disability aid.

Dou — who says his 9-year-old son has never been on vacation and his gross salary of 1,300 euros ($1,475), “disappears immediately in the bills” — was among them. There is little left after high taxes and costly utilities such as electricity. To protest, he and the other protesters wait at night in the middle of the roundabouts, in the rain and cold and mud under makeshift tarpaulin shelters and tents in the darkness of early morning.

“Macron, he’s with the bosses, Macron, he’s against the people,” a singer intoned in a reggae-like jingle from the radio.

The purpose: Restore French values

Dou said he had joined the movement from the beginning, and he was an assiduous presence over several days last week on the traffic circles at GuEret. He was there at 11 pm on a rainy Thursday night, after putting in several hours that morning, and he was there the next day as well. “We don’t even need the social networks anymore,” he said.

His motivation, he said, was to “recover the country’s priorities. The values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.” The gas tax “was what set it all off.” But really “we are the most overtaxed country in the world.”

Yoann Decoux, an out-of-work electrical linesman in his 30s who was presented by GuEret’s yellow vest protesters as their spokesman, had been arrested in Paris two weeks back. “I’ve never been in political demonstrations before,” he said. “But we said, enough’s enough.”

“They don’t even know how we get by with our tiny little salaries,” he said. “But we are humans too, for God’s sake!” He was getting by with vegetables and help from his father, a part-time farmer. None of the GuEret protesters expressed allegiance to any politician: Most said politics disgusted them. When GuEret’s mayor, Michel Vergnier, a veteran Socialist with decades of connections in Paris, went to see the protesters, they were not welcoming. “There’s a rejection of politicians,” Vergnier said. “They are outside all political and union organisations.”

It was the end of the month. To a man and woman the yellow vest protesters of GuEret said their accounts were tapped out. “Right now, I’m at zero,” said Girardin. His wife had done the shopping with 40 euros, $45, the day before, a Wednesday. Now there was nothing left to get them through the weekend. “You get to the end of the month, there’s nothing,” he said.

The aftermath: Glimmer of hope after violent anger

That is why Macron’s plans to raise the gasoline tax, modest an increment as it may seem, was the final straw for so many, the spark that finally set off a seething rage that has been building for years.

There was no gas in his car, said Girardin, a carpet-layer who quit a job with a stagnant 1,200-euro a month salary to strike out on his own. But he was no better off now. “Once we’ve finished paying all of our bills, there’s no money left.”

Tonight’s meal: noodles, with maybe a little ground beef. “I’d like to be able to take my wife to the restaurant from time to time, but I can’t,” Girardin said. Weighed down by financial stress, she had gone into a depression. “She’s totally closed in on herself,” he said.

“We live, but we’ve got to be careful. We can’t go to the restaurant. All the little pleasures of life are gone,” Olivier Depourtoux, a night-shift nurse at a hospital, said. His parents, after a lifetime of work, were reduced to penury, his father in a nursing home and his mother forced to accept meals from charity. She fills the freezer with deep-discount frozen food from the hard discounter Lidl. They wait to get paid to fill up the car and to do the shopping.

“We just don’t make it to the end of the month,” said Elodie Marton, a mother of four who had joined the protesters at the demonstration outside town. “I’ve got 10 euros left,” she said, as a dozen others tried to get themselves warm around an iron-barrel fire. At the roundabout, Laurent Aufrere, a truck driver, was deciding which of that day’s meals to skip. “If I stop rolling, I die. This is not nothing,” Aufrere said. “What’s happening right now is a citizen uprising.”