Witnessing Gilets Jaunes Protests in Toulouse
Foreign Correspondent in France, Ben Mirzoeff, gives an account of Yellow Vest protests in Toulouse, arguing that protests have now become normalised in the eyes of protesters and police.
Three days into my year abroad, I was welcomed to Toulouse by seeing riot police with tear gas.
What was most striking about the use of these tear gas grenades was how unprovoked they seemed. One police officer pulled alongside a group of ten protesters, who were chanting, but were otherwise tame and certainly non-violent, to throw a grenade into their midst and drive off as it landed. This was my witnessed example of how police violence has got out of hand – police violence that has been denounced by Emmanuel Macron in 2020 after injuries, deaths and footage that has been shared on social media. This denouncement has prompted frustrated responses from police unions who feel abandoned by the Republic they are protecting and point towards their own suffering.
What was most striking about the use of these tear gas grenades was how unprovoked they seemed.
The above-mentioned small group is representative of how the vast majority of protesters were proceeding, lacking the strength of mass groups or any evident overarching organisation for their actions. In fact, they seemed not to carry any obvious message at all. Although it is true that everyone, certainly within France, is already well aware of what they are protesting against by now, there was a distinct impression that they had lost touch to a certain extent with their motives. It has been reported that the protests, since the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) have been largely abandoned, have in general been less violent and more organised; the former was however significantly more evident that the latter during my first impression of Toulouse.
All round the city there could be seen Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité men (CRS – the special mobile French police force) jumping in and out of cars, frantically communicating with each other as they tried to predict the next movements of the seemingly few protesters. The protesters proved constantly evasive in the twisting French streets, despite a lack of pace or subtlety in their movements. What you immediately notice about many of those carrying riot shields was that roughly half of them were also wearing jeans – the lack of sufficient resources to deal with the weekly strikes becoming evident. As the afternoon wore on, it gave way to the strange sight of these semi-uniformed riot police leaning against their cars parked on corners smoking and chatting, waiting for a radio call of trouble nearby. The apparent normalisation of this extreme situation really emphasised just how long these events have been taking place.
The apparent normalisation of this extreme situation really emphasised just how long these events have been taking place.
Ten hours after the official start of the protests, the city progressed into Saturday night but remained slightly on edge. Everyone was walking slightly faster than usual and peering down every street for signs of the next apparition of tear gas, which had left a slight sting in the back of the throat and the eyes – and was lingering in the air all over the centre. I once again came into direct contact with a tear gas attack as it appeared out of nowhere in the middle of a crowd on one of the busier, yet narrower, pedestrian streets in the centre. The incredible thing about this attack is that I, and seemingly most people on the street, had been unaware of the presence of protesters or even police on the street at all. The occasional distant shouts from protesters and sights of police vans made it clear trouble was still taking place, but you were unaware of it until it would suddenly appear out of nowhere, before quickly dying down again to reappear somewhere else. Here the effectiveness of being broken up into lots of small groups of protesters became clear. The lack of the emblematic yellow jackets obviously played a key role in the fact that no one was aware there were protesters ahead, and certainly adds a level of difficulty to this Saturday “sport” for the police. But, one has to question why the gas grenade was launched if the protesters weren’t even doing enough for civilians to pick up on them.
The gas itself was certainly effective in dispersing the crowds and sending all off rapidly in different directions, coughing and eyes streaming. Despite this deterrent, credit has to be given to the city of Toulouse and its general citizens for the fact that day-to-day life did continue, without interruption, despite the scenes taking place around it. Major shops and department stores did board up windows for obvious reasons, and most places open for business had a single security guard on the door (who you could not envisage having much impact if required). But, shops were all still open and, other than these measures, the city progressed as normal – simply working its way around the game of “cat and mouse” being played out among them as and when they ran into it.
Arguably, despite the lack of clear message or organisation, this level of disturbance is all that is required from these protesters, as it is certainly continuing to have a significant impact on the police force in Toulouse and back in Paris. It will only ever become wholly ineffective if their points are lost for good… This message has developed from the petrol price complaints that sparked the Gilets Jaunes movement in late 2018, to that of one against pension reform more recently, and against the collective of Macron’s many policies -unpopular among many members of the lower and middle classes.
However, the strongest feeling from my first impression of these protests was that the gilets jaunes repression had simply become Saturday’s routine. With the passing of weeks and weeks, there was a loss of clear message and organisation on behalf of the protesters, and excessively-extreme responses from the ground-down police force. If the police were to tone-down their reactions, it would be interesting to see how the protesters react, although there is a risk that they themselves then increase violence to keep up momentum. One thing for sure is that after fifteen months, there is no immediate end to this cycle in sight.