Reportage. Their demands are the same since protests began in November 2018: increased purchasing power and participatory democracy. But now they’re also talking about joblessness in the wake of COVID.

Yellow vests return to the streets, but in fewer numbers

The yellow vests returned this weekend after the long period of fear due to COVID. It was not a very numerous comeback, and many of those present had left the symbolic vest at home. There were marches (with low attendance) in a number of French cities: Marseille, Lyon, Lille, Nantes, Nice, Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Grenoble, while in Toulouse the demonstration was not allowed to take place because of the health crisis.

Some roundabouts on the roads were occupied once again, from Le Mans to Manosque. There were two separate marches in Paris, with the permission of the Prefecture, but there were some incidents in the afternoon in the north-west of the capital, when a “wild” group of marchers—in the terms used by the Prefecture—tried to reach the “forbidden zone,” the Champs Elysées, a symbol of luxury a few steps from the palaces of power. The other march started from the Stock Exchange, featuring around a thousand people, and ended in Place de Wagram. More than 200 people were stopped by police, with many receiving fines and more than a hundred detained.

The Prefecture posted an array of photos on Twitter depicting the prohibited weapons seized: knives, pliers, batons, etc. There were a few clashes, a car was set on fire and the police used tear gas. In order to preempt any accusations of police violence, the new Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, had announced on the eve of the protests that the officers were now equipped with tear gas grenades that were less dangerous than usual. “Support for law enforcement,” Darmanin tweeted late on Saturday afternoon as the clashes continued. Prefect Didier Lallement recalled that two demonstrations had been allowed to proceed in Paris: “I’m hearing accusations about a ‘dictatorship’, but I will note that there are possibilities to protest, as long as it is peaceful, as long as there is no destruction.”

The demands have remained the same since the beginning of the protests in November 2018: more purchasing power and more participatory democracy with the citizens’ initiative referendum (RIC). But the situation has changed after COVID. 13 million employees in the private sector have been receiving their wages, paid by the state. The problem, however, lies the immediate future, when the extraordinary public intervention measures will end and companies will start laying people off.

Some of them are already doing so, from Auchan to General Electric, despite the substantial aid that the state is giving to companies, who have gotten many billions from the 100 billion euro economic relaunch program presented at the beginning of September. According to Philippe Martinez, secretary of the CGT union, three-quarters of the layoffs that are taking place now have nothing to do with COVID: the companies are taking advantage of the opportunity to cut down on staff. In protest against these wrongful measures and asking for more guarantees for work, the CGT is organizing a day of mobilization on Thursday, September 17.

On Saturday, there were some supporters of France Insoumise among the marchers in Paris. However, the yellow vests are allergic to any kind of “leaders,” and a veteran comedian, Jean-Pierre Bigard—who seems to intend to run for president in 2022 on a populist platform—found that out the hard way on Saturday. Bigard declared himself to be a part of the yellow vests, but criticized some statements by a prominent figure of the movement, Jérôme Rodrigues, who a few days ago called French policemen “a gang of Nazis” and asked the vests to practice “civil disobedience” (by refusing to present their identity card at the request of police). Bigard, who tried to join the protest at the Stock Exchange with a mask bearing a vulgar slogan (“allez tous vous faire enculer” – “everyone go fuck yourselves”), was rejected by other protesters, accused of being a shill for criticizing the statement about the “Nazis.” The comedian had to take refuge in a pizzeria and then made his escape on a motorcycle.

Among the slogans of the protesters yesterday were “Epidemic or not, we have the right to talk about our problems” and “To fill up our fridge with dignity.” In Place de Wagram, managers of discos who have suffered from being closed due to COVID also joined in, together with the drivers for VTC (an alternative taxi service, similar to Uber), who are also in distress. There were a few anti-mask protesters, in the wake of the conspiracy theories advocated by a leading figure of the vests, Maxime Nicolle, who took part in the anti-mask demonstration of August 28.

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