The first thing that struck me when I emerged from the metro station onto the Place de la Nation was the amount of corduroy. It was without doubt the trouser material of choice for the middle-aged men participating in Sunday’s inaugural Red Scarf (Foulard Rouge) rally in support of the Republic and its institutions.
As I meandered through the crowd, which numbered only half of the 20,000 hoped for by the organisers, I was also surprised by the number of blue and gold flags. Some demonstrators were waving the EU banner and others were wrapped in it, like football fans on their way to a World Cup match.
I spied a woman sheltering from the driving rain under an EU umbrella and thought she would be a good person to start talking to. She and her husband were erudite young professionals who were braving the weather to show their support for the Republic. What about the umbrella? I asked. Isn’t the EU part of France’s problem? She nodded ‘Europe in its current form is unsatisfactory because there is too much self-interest among nations,’ she explained. ‘That’s why we should have a more federal Europe, like Macron says.’
Every Red Scarf I spoke to shared Emmanuel Macron’s ambition for a common European budget, army and parliament. A tall bearded gentleman in his thirties told me he was for a United States of Europe, a continent without borders and a common culture. A quartet of silver-haired protestors didn’t go that far but still expressed their wish for greater harmonisation within the EU.
I put this vision to half a dozen bedraggled Yellow Vests eyeing the Red Scarf rally from the other side of the road. It was not well received. ‘You English made the right decision,’ one said, as the rain dripped from his beanie. I remarked that Brexit had turned into a bit of a shambles. ‘But at least you’re leaving. Look what happened to us when we voted [against the EU Constitution in 2005]. We were ignored.’
The six told me they came from the banlieue, the suburbs, and had been demonstrating since the start of the Yellow Vest movement. They were contemptuous of their president, the police and the idea of ending their protest.
It wasn’t only a vision of the future that differentiated the Yellow Vests from the majority of Red Scarves. The latter bore the accoutrements of the affluent: ski jackets, cashmere scarves and bags from Louis Vuitton and Roberta Pieri. All deplored the violence that has disfigured France in the last two months but some said they nevertheless understood the reason for the Yellow Vest mobilisation. The woman with the EU umbrella, whose job often takes her across France, spoke of the deprivation she had seen in the provinces.
Others didn’t bother to hide their disdain for the Yellow Vests, like the bearded gentleman who said they were just confused rabble-rousers raging against a changing world.
The quartet of sixty-something protestors were the most optimistic for the future. They have faith in their president to bring his country through this difficult period and believe that the Big Debate is having a positive impact. They pointed to the announcement last week that the Yellow Vest movement will field 79 candidates in May’s European Elections, proof in their eyes that the best way to protest is at the ballot box and not on the street.
The announcement of the formation of a political party has created a division within the Yellow Vest movement and the effect could be a radicalisation of the faction that is opposed to entering the political process.
The likelihood of the emergence of a hardline splinter group is more probable following the injury on Saturday to Jérôme Rodrigues, one of the de facto leaders of the street protestors. The 40-year-old was live-streaming the eleventh weekend of protest (which drew 69,000 people) from the Place de la Bastille when he was hit by a police stingball grenade which exploded at his feet, and then was shot in the face with a rubber bullet.
A similar injury was sustained on Saturday by an off-duty soldier in the southern city of Montpellier as he left a restaurant with a group of friends, fellow servicemen on leave from Libya. Using the terminology of the US military, the police said the bullet had been aimed at a group of rioters and the head injury to the soldier was ‘collateral damage’. Since the Yellow Vest protests began, 152 protestors have suffered head injuries from police weapons, while 17 have lost an eye and four a hand.
The circumstances of Rodrigues’s injury have enraged many Yellow Vests, and a call to arms was issued on Sunday. ‘Citizens, form yourselves into battalions!’ ran a communique, echoing the words of Eric Drouet, an associate of Rodrigues, who issued a statement demanding ‘an uprising without precedent by all means necessary’.
That includes an unlimited general strike, scheduled to start on February 5, which has the support of the CGT union. In recent years strikes organised by the CGT have drawn scores of Black bloc activists, the violent ultra-left anarchists, and in 2016 a children’s hospital in Paris was among their targets. Peace will not be coming to Paris anytime soon, as Macron appeared to acknowledge on Sunday evening as he arrived in Egypt on a three-day visit. ‘I’m waking on thin ice,’ he said. ‘Throughout our democracies, the rising tension of people is a social, economic, moral and democratic dissatisfaction.’
France may be awash with colour but those wearing black, red, yellow and blue and gold are not just divided sartorially. The fractures are regional, material, cultural and ideological, and as the woman with the EU umbrella admitted, the outlook for France is as bleak as the Parisian weather.