The country folk do have a point when they say no one in Paris will pay attention to them unless they riot against the gabelle. (And that's exactly what this is. A dormant instinct awakened. How many years has it been since the last riot against the gabelle? How do people know that this is their tradition: Is the memory passed on orally, in families? Or is it taught in school?)
1. A planned ambush. These peasants mean business. As I wrote in City Journal, the police lost control of the area around the Charles de Gaulle Étoile on December 1 because they seriously misunderstood the nature of these protests and used an inappropriate policing strategy. They didn’t have enough manpower, so they were unable to recover. What’s more, they couldn’t make and apply decisions fast enough to deal with the surprise attack, especially because Macron was overseas.
Strikes and public demonstrations have, for years, crippled one after another government’s efforts to introduce market reforms and reduce the size France’s public sector. In late 2017, facing protests against planned reforms to the labor code and pensions systems, Macron’s government asked the police to explore new ways to crack down on what the French call casseurs—fringe groups from the far-right and the far-left who show up at demonstrations determined to wreak havoc and fight the police. The police studied techniques for breaking up crowds, for tagging casseurs with paintball guns to identify them, and dispersing them with sound cannons and stroboscopes. The casseurs, the police noted then, had become growingly adept at networking on social media. In response, they proposed to ramp up their own social media strategy.
2. No one left to talk to. Macron succeeded in pushing through his reforms without so provoking the street it shut down normal life. Perhaps it was because of these police measures. Or more likely, perhaps the French were, at first, willing to give his reforms a chance. They did elect him, after all, and he did explicitly campaign on this platform. By defeating the unions that had mobilized to fight his reforms, Macron was seen to have scored a victory. What he didn’t see coming was a spontaneous and leaderless movement of people who rejected both the government and the unions. So now he's left with an even less accommodating negotiating partner: The unions, at least, had spokesmen and leaders with he could reach a settlement. The unions could convince their more radical members to stand down. Macron has tried to cave in to the Yellow Jackets, but he can’t: There’s no one with whom he can negotiate the terms of surrender.
3 The desecration. On Saturday, December 1, the cops lost control of Charles de Gaulle Étoile. There is no place in France more solemn, meaningful, and symbolic.
At the base of the Arc de Triomphe is a torch. Since Armistice Day, 1923, it has been rekindled every evening in a ceremony at 6:30 P.M. Veterans place wreaths decorated with the French tricolor by the flame, which lights the tomb of the unknown French soldier who gave his life for France in the First World War. The casseurs covered the Arc in graffiti: “The Yellow Jackets will Triumph,” “Long live vandalism!” “Get lost Macron!” They hacked apart the statue of the Marianne, the symbol of the French republic; they used hammers to smash the display cases, the artifacts, and the sculptures, including a marble bust of Napoleon. They looted the commemorative medals. They snuffed out the eternal flame. The police so completely lost control that it could not be lit again that day, and the tomb of the unknown soldier lay in the dark that night for the first time since 1923. The Yellow Jackets filmed themselves. They were proud. This kind of violence, nihilism, and hatred of civilization calls to mind ISIS, but they were middle-aged, rural French men.
The day before, the Interior Minister predicted that 200 black-blocks and 100 members of the far-right would join the protests. “Vandalism and violence are unfortunately predictable,” said Denis Jacob, the secretary-general of one of France’s police unions, observing that this kind of violence usually occurs at the tail end of the rally. The police were under firm orders to prevent any destruction or vandalism, and equally firm orders to ensure unimpeded and peaceful pedestrian access to the Champs-Elysées, the city’s biggest shopping arterial. The French economy simply couldn’t afford to lose another Saturday of pre-Christmas shopping revenues. After giving these orders—which were later shown to be incompatible—Macron departed for Argentina. As well he should have: That’s his job. Nonetheless, the country felt his absence. The emergency demanded an executive on the ground and making rapid, consequential decisions. To judge from the chaos and the kinds of mistakes that were made, it seems likely that no one was willing to take responsibility for changing the orders.
Social media groups had converged upon a plan to demonstrate on the Place de la Concorde, around the Eiffel Tower. A number had requested official permission to rally there.
“The right to protest is a fundamental one,” the Interior Ministry responded in a communiqué, “and it is out of the question to ban the rally. However, it cannot take place on the Place de la Concorde, for obvious reasons of security.” During the French Revolution, the revolutionary government erected a guillotine there, which they used to execute King Louis XVI in front of cheering crowds. Later, when the revolution ate its own, it was used to execute the revolutionaries. But that wasn’t the “obvious reason of security” to which he was referring. The obvious reason was its proximity to significant government buildings, including the National Assembly and the American Embassy.
It was politically out of the question to ban the demonstrations outright. The right to assemble is as fundamental to France’s conception of itself as a free country as it is to the United States. What’s more, the opposition far-left and far-right parties, led by the wildly irresponsible Jean-Luc Mélanchon and Marine Le Pen, have been egging the protesters on, hoping to transform a spontaneous and leaderless movement into one organized and led by one of them. Both have offered grotesque incitement to the increasingly-violent movement. Naturally, Russian propaganda organs have seized upon its social media signals and amplified them. All are prepared to pounce immediately upon any restriction of the protests—or any violent reaction to them—as a sign of the government’s fear of the people.
3. A perfectly reasonable plan. This is why the interior ministry confined itself to barring the protests only from areas such that a suicide bomber, taking advantage of the mêlée, could insert himself and instantly take out half the government. Police chief Michel Delpuech announced the establishment of a security perimeter around the Elysée Palace, Concorde, the National Assembly, the Senate, and the Hôtel de Ville. No protest was to take place within that zone. But “elsewhere in the capital, the freedom to protest can be exercised.” The enclosed area, whose perimeter was guarded by 5,000 police officers, made up much of the area depicted on this map, south of the Seine; the flames represent flames: major fires set by the protesters. As this suggests, they did succeed in keeping them out of the protected zone.
Traffic would obviously be terrible, particularly because another protest—against “sexist and sexual violence”—was scheduled that morning between the Opéra and the Place de la République, in the northeastern quadrant of the map above. Keenly aware that blocking off so many roads would cause serious disruption and inconvenience on a critical pre-Christmas shopping day, the police chief promised that normal traffic would be permitted after 1:00 pm, or “as soon as circumstances allowed.”
The plan sounded reasonable. The numbers of protesters had been declining since the first “National Day of Action,” on November 17. The first protest had drawn 282,000 yellow jackets to the streets throughout the country, according to the Interior Ministry. On the following Saturday, less than half—106,000—had taken to the streets. Of these, only 8,000 had come to Paris. The weather on December 1 was as gloomy and dark as the police could have hoped. Nothing about the day was riotous. Even if the crowds had been as large as they had been the week before, it seemed reasonable to imagine that 8,000 cops with tear gas, water cannon, and a complement of non-lethal and lethal weapons could handle 8,000 protesters.
4. The fan zone. The police opted for a “ fan-zone” strategy, which worked successfully during the World Cup. This is a strategy for controlling football hooliganism. It works by encouraging potential miscreants to concentrate in a central area. Those who don’t have tickets to enter the stadium are lured into appealing “fan zones,” in the heart of the city, to watch the game on mega-screen televisions. The perimeter of this zone is strictly controlled.
Usually, as soon as there’s a large police mobilization in Paris, the black blocks show up to prove that the state can’t control them. They generally enter east of the city near Bastille or République. That’s why the Interior Minister declared the fan zone would be on the Champs-Elysées, in the center of the city.
And in fact, the plan worked: There was no terrorism. Both the fan zone and the government buildings were protected from rioters. But in public security, you get no points for what you do right. The plan wasn’t sufficient because the demonstrators were nothing like football hooligans. They had come with the specific, organized intention of committing unprecedented violence on the city's monuments and police. They weren't dealing with a bunch of over-adrenal Boulogne Boys who wanted a bit of aggro. These rioters were not there to have a good time, and they didn’t give a damn about the traditions and rules of street protests.
5. What I saw. I was with peaceful Gilet Jaunes near the Bastille and had no idea of the violence up by the Étoile. I did sense something had gone wrong when we reached the Hôtel de Ville. There, at about 1:00 p.m., the cops—who had been relaxed until that point—freaked out suddenly, as if they’d been jolted with an electric current. A helicopter was buzzing overhead. About 25 police vans came down the street in a caravan, headed toward the Champs Elysée. Some fifty-odd cops had maneuvered themselves into an undisciplined phalanx in front of the Hôtel de Ville, facing the Rue de Rivoli. They began lobbing tear gas in the general direction of the Arc de Triomphe. Clearly the cops were suddenly terrified, but it wasn’t clear to me why. I’d been deep in conversation with the nice Gilets Jaunes—we were talking about our favorite books, and I was teaching them Sammy Hagar lyrics—so I had no idea the protesters had gone berserk and the cops had lost control.* We were all baffled. Why would they fire tear gas at a bunch of grey-haired pensioners? “They’re frightened,” said one of my Gilet Jaunes. “They’re from all around the country. They’re not used to Paris. Maybe they’ve never been here before.” He was correct to note the police are part of a national, not a municipal force, and they did look young and green by comparison with the elderly Gilet Jaunes.
The protest was authorized. The protesters were doing nothing illegal or threatening. “Why are they so hopped-up?” I asked. They didn’t know, although one of them had the right intuition. “It’s the Hôtel de Ville," he said. City Hall. “They’re protecting the politicians.” He shrugged as if to say, “Protecting them from us. You can see how ridiculous that is.” I agreed. Only later, when I checked the news, did I understand the cops probably weren't terrified of the protesters, but of their boss, who was surely going to return from Argentina and hand them their balls in a sling for having lost control of the Arc de Triomphe.
The scene was curiously inverted. The cops were a young and racially diverse lot drawn from the urban working class. Many were obviously of Maghrebi or African origin. The Gilets Jaunes to whom I was speaking were white, in late middle age, and baffled by the cops’ antagonism: they thought the cops were on their side—as they had seemed to be only moments before. Neither side was native to Paris. The older white guys, wearing yellow vests that looked like official uniforms, were staring in puzzlement at the young, agitated, dark-skinned forces of order. There was no racial animosity that I could discern. Just perplexity.
6. What happened at the Étoile. I’ve pieced this together by matching reports from reliable people and newspapers. The police were physically overwhelmed by about 5,000 Gilet Jaunes who had come explicitly prepared to do violence. According to the Ministry of the Interior, only 10,000 demonstrated in Paris that day. Half of them came to fight.
About 5,000 protesters were at the Étoile at any one time, Lichfield said to me on Twitter, “though difficult to be sure. Of these most were involved in the violence. Don't care what videos ‘show,’ I saw with my own eyes.” (He had been having a long day arguing on Twitter with purveyors of fake videos.) He was the first to tell me that it was the Gilet Jaunes themselves, not radical far-left and right-wing groupuscules, who were burning cars. The attacks on buildings, he said, were more often the work of the far-right and the anarchists.
The riot police pushed the casseurs back on to the Charles de Gaulle Étoile. There were running battles all morning long on the Avenues around the Étoile. The rioters threw stones and other projectiles at the police. Lichfield estimated that 70 percent of the casseurs were radicalized Gilet Jaunes, not urban guerillas; this has been confirmed by other reporters and subsequent police estimates.
The rest of the police couldn’t redeploy to the Arc de Triomphe, where they were needed, because they were guarding the National Assembly, the Senate, City Hall, and other buildings packed with politicians. I assume the chief of police or the interior minister calculated that property could be replaced, but Senators couldn't. The police are furious, however, that they were not given the orders to redeploy because it would have left the government unprotected. The eternal flame is of no small significance here.
7. Like the Battle of Waterloo. The police recaptured the Étoile without any backup, but they began to flag. They were undermanned. The Étoile has twelve avenues radiating from the center, making it nightmarishly difficult to protect; the target can be attacked from every direction. The police succeeded only in pushing the worst of the rioters down the avenues, where they broke windows and set cars on fire.
The Paris prosecutor, Remy Heitz, later explained that the first wave comprised radicalized Yellow Vests from the countryside, armed with makeshift weapons. The second wave, he said, in the afternoon, saw the arrival of younger rioters “from the Paris region,” motivated by “delinquency, opportunity, and the chance to loot." The police hadn't even seen the first wave coming, so of course they didn’t anticipate that the first wave would touch off a second. But the news spread in real time on social media, and this attracted all the JDs from the banlieue.
Michel Delpuech, the chief of police in Paris, admitted they were caught unprepared. In a press conference at the end of the next day, he said that law enforcement had never before seen anything like it. “The testimonies of law enforcement offices all say that never these officials had never before seen such violent events.” (That's an important point: It doesn't mean that these were events of unprecedented violence in France. It means that France has too few cops who have training and experience in riot control. I'll explain why in another article.) “This was no spontaneous riot,” he stressed, “but a planned attack” on law enforcement
Among the rioters, he said, were members of far-right and far-left groupuscules. But he confirmed that a large number of protesters, to the police’s surprise, fell in neither camp. They were, he said, willing to “engage in unjustifiable violence” for reasons yet unclear: “Disinhibition, training—what do I know?”
Everyone in Paris shared his expression of frank bewilderment. We were all stupefied.
8. Undeterred. The reports of the violence didn't sober up the Gilets Jaunes rank and file. Immediately, they began organizing more demonstrations on social media, mostly on Facebook, with thousands avowing that violence was the only way to get the government's attention, and decrying the bourgeois elites who would whine about "a statue" when "we're dying here." (Life expectancy has actually been rising in France. So, for that matter, has purchasing power. The economy had been growing—albeit very slowly and disappointingly—until these protests. It is still expected to grow, but only half as much.) One Facebook event was called, “Acte IV: Aux Armes Citoyens.” One commenter planned “to bring Molotov cocktails to force the barricades!”
9. Police Calling for a State of Emergency.
The police want Macron to call in the army—and they’re saying so in growingly hysterical tones. The Secretary of the National Police Alliance, Stanislas Gaudon, said, “We have to help our forces to do their job without getting smacked in the face for ten hours straight.” A state of emergency, he says, is the only solution because it can be imposed quickly, by the council of ministers: There is no time for recruiting and training new police forces. It would give police authority to search protesters’ homes, which the law doesn't otherwise permit, save as a counter-terror measure. (The protests are not considered, legally, to be terrorists, but sources of “public disorder.”) It would allow them to establish control over “security perimeters,” to requisition administrative resources. The police don't want the army to do counter-riot work, he stressed: They want the army to assume responsibility for guarding statis targets so that the entire police force can be deployed as mobile units, “the heart of our profession, the classic maintenance of order."
The police are exhausted, he says, and while they will “always defend the Republic,” they’ve been taking beatings from the protesters; they’ve been overworked for years; they're being hit by projectiles. They’re “waiting to hear the response from Justice.” They are sick of arresting the people, watching them be released, and confronting the same people again—"people who wouldn’t hesitate to kill a cop."
The Union of National Police Commissioners agrees. “In the face of insurrectionary movements, to protect citizens and to ensure public order, there are some exceptional measures to consider. The state of emergency is one of them,” the union's Twitter account said.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner allows that the executive “badly handled a number of sequences of communication and training.” On December 9, he said the government couldn’t rule out any measure, including the restoration of the state of emergency.
But last week, his Secretary of State, Laurent Nuñez, told the press that a state of emergency was “not on the agenda.” Instead they redeployed tens of thousands of gendarmes throughout the country. They knew what to expect this time, which helped a bit. But it still wasn't enough to keep order.
9. A Cop’s View. This blog post, written by “Stéphane,” a riot control (CRS) officer with the Police Nationale, is riveting. [This is the CRS.] I’ve translated it loosely, and beware: I have not confirmed the identity of the author. There's so much fake news out there that this could be imaginary. But from what I know of what happened, there's no reason, prima facie, to think so. I've never seen this blog debunked as a fraud.
There are days when you know you’re going to throw up in disgust, pick yourself up, and get yourself some squash as they say. [If you slur the words, "Recevoir le courage,” to take courage, sounds like “recevoir le courge,” to get a zucchini.”] That’s where we were at 8:45 am for this new day of war. And war’s just what it was. Apart for some of the guys who’ve worked in Corsica or the worst neighborhoods of Paris, Saturday was the worst day we’ve ever seen. A wave of violence that didn’t stop—against us, our stuff. The idea? Break the cop, simply. No matter what means they used, they only had that in mind. Paving stones, smoke, barricades, slingshots, paint with glycerol and acid—they used them all as weapons to hurt us, harm us, kill us. As they say, “a good cop is a dead cop.”…
Breakfast at 4:00 a.m, a sandwich at 5:00 p.m. and a hot meal at 10:00 p.m., went to bed at 1:00 a.m. In total, my company had 15 wounded, including one very seriously, and many bruised, all sprinkled with detonations and tear-gas nonstop. Nice recipe, isn’t it?
At 8:45 a.m., I was stationed with my company on one of the large avenues in the 8th. They were already screaming with anger everywhere, singing, blowing stuff up, breaking furniture. They were chanting “CRS are with us,” even though they were hateful toward the police. Is the point of all this to make the president “fall?” Not so easy. We can’t lay down our arms; we’re the last bulwark protecting the institutions. A police officer must preserve public order and protect people and property by showing his neutrality, protecting people and property impartially, without qualms. That's not easy, either. We're the eternal bad guys of society. The radical fringes of the Yellow Jackets reproach us, like many other people do. How are we supposed to respond to people’s anger about us doing our job, and even more, our duty? Why all this violence? Why so much hate towards us?
I was thinking, would I end this day alive, hurt, just bruised? Will I watch my colleagues get hit? And my family, my wife, my children, my parents ... how do I reassure them? Watching us live on TV in the middle of a civil war must be horrible to for the people who love us. All of this is going through my head.
But I have to focus on the mission; that’s the most important thing, especially because 500 casseurs were coming up on our backs. We only barely had time to pull back when a wild gang of masked Yellow Jackets, hooded, scarves around their faces, dressed in black, and more than determined came our way. No, it’s not a nightmare! Our first reaction was to break off quickly in an alley to limit the damage and avoid being caught between the Place de l’Étoile and this horde. We don’t even have time to say “Amen” before a rainstorm of paving stones, scrap metal, paint, glass bottles starts falling on our company. When we’re given the orders, we respond with tear gas grenades that we throw by hand, sound grenades that we launch from the ground so that we don't physically harm the people coming at us. Then the sting-ball grenades.
[NB: These may only be used, under French law, when police are trapped, encircled, and in immediate danger. This is the weapon that cost one Gilet Jaune two fingers, and another, his hand. Most of the serious, police-inflicted injuries reported so far seem to involve this weapon. It should probably be banned entirely: It doesn't seem to be effective, as he notes, and it's too dangerous, not only to rioters but to bystanders caught up in the violence.]
It doesn’t stop the hail of cobblestones coming and crashing into my colleagues’ legs, knees and hands. Some of us are wounded and say so, but we hold. At that moment, you just pray that your colleague doesn’t drop his shield, because that would open a breach. I hear screaming in front of me because I didn’t have time to warn my colleague that the paving stone would hit his hand full-force. He’s a tough guy, he holds on. Another on my right screams in pain, a stone got hurled at his knee. Thank God for his knee pads, later he's going to get another stone thrown at in the same place. There are days, like that, where you can claim to be lucky.
The water cannon finally arrives to back us up. Somehow, it manages eventually to push them away, extinguish the fires burning up piles of garbage, and get in place facing the Arc de Triomphe. Now it's time to roll these savages back. The bulldozer arrives right afterward to clear the street of barricades. We use every kind of grenade to advance, we breathe gas again, again and again. We cough, spit, sneeze ... it stings, it burns your eyes and you have to use decontaminant to neutralize the effect of the gas. Even if you’re used to it, it’s hard. When I get the orders I try several times to hit [presumably with rubber bullets] the slingshots from which they’re hurling acid, paving stones, paint. They even emptied a fire extinguisher and filled with paint in order to douse us with it. I see my targets running away, holding their hands, arms, and abdomen. This calms the ardor of some of the ones who are hyped-up to try to come charge us again. The weapon is pointed in their direction. Can't launch without fear of being hit again. And yet we fall back, a colleague falls to the ground, his leg badly injured by a paving stone. I fall, too, but I get up, no time to check if I'm in pain. You have to go back to the Arc de Triomphe.
That's when a police caravan from another company crosses the Place de l'Étoile and gets stoned from every angle. The storm of unbelievable violence only ends when a car is wrecked. We can see part of the over-excited crowd advancing toward our colleagues at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe to assault them, brutally. Can we help them? No. It's too dangerous. And it wasn't our choice not to give them a hand. But how do you deal with more than three thousand people? The orders are to block the street. We obey: end of story.
Behind us, the noise is getting closer. Louder and louder. What's this about? Our wild horde is returning to the charge. Same tactic as before, that's to say, to get them out in an alley. But once we're cut off, the projectiles start raining down from both sides. Some of us are repainted from head to toe, the paint is almost impossible to get off. Again we're wounded, bruised, but somehow, we repel them. Barely. Still with the meager means we have to defend ourselves.
Now it's 5:00, a fire broke out in an apartment in Paris but no one has eaten since 4:00 in the morning. When will we get a break? Ah ... they beckon me because calm has settled. The firefighters will go to that apartment with my colleagues to protect them.
I've only got 20 minutes to sit down, exhale, grasp what's happened, and especially to call my family to reassure them. "I'm fine."
I leave after eating so my friends can take their turn and rest a bit until this lightning battle to evict [the rioters], from the Place d'Étoile is decisively settled. [He uses the word "fulgurente," not Blitzkrieg. Surging, flashing, like lightning.] It's taking place under an incredible deluge of fire, like fireworks!! I've never seen this in more than fifteen years on the job. [He's probably referring to the use of flash grenades. That he's never seen them used before is another sign of inexperience.] It's just unheard of. Simple, fast, effective. ... but the thugs have returned anyway; it only took them an hour.
It's 8:00 pm. The troops' morale begins to flag. We're tired, exhausted by more that 13 hours of continuous violence. "The show" will only, finally, stop at 10:00 pm when the last holdouts are pushed back by grenades [of tear gas]. It's finally time for a hot meal. We're sitting, quiet and at last ready to have a shower and go to bed after a day of total human degradation. End of chaos.
We, the cops, understand the anger of yellow jackets. We’re living in the same mess as the real yellow jackets. For us, too, life is getting harder and harder. When we take our uniform off, we’re men and women. And we don’t understand the attitudes of our politicians, who just seem to keep ignoring the reality of life. These leaders who let the people live, barely survive, leaving them behind in the misery.
To turn a deaf ear, make fun of the people and deny it even as they do it, unfortunately, that’s not the attitude we’re entitled to expect from our political class. Is this the beginning of a revolution? Only time will tell, but one thing’s for sure, a policeman’s not a machine. He’s a man who has a conscience, a family, a life to live like everyone else. ...
10. It could be worse. The police didn’t kill anyone. They managed to get through the entire day without using their firearms. Nor were firearms used against them. So people are still obeying some unspoken rules—and critical ones. No live fire. No bombs. Don't be unsporting. It seems everything else goes, however lethal its effects. But shooting with live ammunition is taboo, on both sides, thank God.
The last thing anyone in his right mind would want is for someone to take that next step. But how long can go on before someone does? Think about that stolen assault rifle. Perhaps the person who stole it will look at it and think twice. But these are people who casually defaced the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. Not even the Nazis thought desecrating Paris like that would be a good idea. So really—who knows? [I wrote that sentence before the terrorist attack in Strasbourg, which added another layer of uncertainty to the situation.]
What must he feel waking up to the stories about “police brutality” in the news, to the endless words of praise from the government for law enforcement, but just as the unions say—just words, no back up?
His last sentence: “But after a while, we’ll have to say stop.”
Stop? To whom? With what? What is one to make of that? It's ambiguous and ominous.
11. No one can make sense of this. I don’t know what will happen next. Neither do the police intelligence services, who are trying to make sense of all of this information in real time. They don’t have to hunt for intelligence sources or infiltrate the Yellow Jackets or meet their leaders in clandestine locations: The Yellow Jackets are, as they profess to be, transparent. Even the Russian propaganda bots are all right out in the open, for all to see. But the signal-to-noise ratio is definitely more than 1:1. The sea of online data does not necessarily tell you what’s going to happen. And which are the key trends—can they count on public opinion turning against the Yellow Jackets if this keeps up? Should they count on the rioters being too old to hold out, physically, against a younger police cohort?
Unless there’s a secret division that’s not part of the budget, it hardly seems likely that the Police Intelligence Brigade has enough manpower to infiltrate and report on all of these self-organizing groups. The police operate in a slow-moving bureaucracy, which like all bureaucracies is utterly unable to keep pace with social media. They have get permission for everything they do, then submit reports about it to the Interior Ministry, or up the military chain of command.
A certain mood overtakes cities at moments like this. Intimacy and bonhomie arise among perfect strangers, all of us aware that this is absolutely awful and very serious, yet despite ourselves thrilled to be relieved of the boredom of everyday life. Everyone regales everyone with gossip, inside stories, and conspiracy theories; everyone knows someone who knows someone who said something. Life takes on the quality of an inside joke, a game to see who has the wildest, most weirdly perfect theory of what's really going on and who knows the city best. Parisians will remember this and we will be bound together by our memories. The rumors usually prove false in the end. But Macron must be asking himself, in some seriousness—given all the punishment the police have taken in the past eight years—what will happen if he forces those cops out there over and over again without serious backup? Rumors that the police are on the verge of mutiny have no more credibility than any other street rumor, but there's also a certain logic to it: How much can you push them before they say, "Stop?"
The government isn't keen, though. Declaring a state of emergency would be a disaster for Macron--an unparalleled admission of political defeat. So it probably won't happen unless a lot of people get killed.
But leaving an exhausted and undermanned police forced to deal with this is every bit as risky! The cops haven’t slept; they’ve been taking abuse and potshots from the protesters; their colleagues have been injured. Young and inexperienced police officers, especially, if they find themselves cornered without back-up, can make serious mistakes and kill people. The protesters have already figured out the police are undermanned: They can see the state is vulnerable. This is encouraging them to believe they can overwhelm it. That's not a rumor: This is what they're saying to each other, very transparently. They're nuts. Maybe the Declaration of a State of Emergency would suggest to them how nuts it is to imagine they can forcibly overthrow the government with hammers and pickaxes.
I suspect Macron's calculation is that by capitulating to the protesters demands, as he did, he'll separate the mass of unhappy but normal protesters from the anarchic nihilist fringe. He's hoping that only the lunatics will come out next, and trusting the exhausted police and the gendarmerie will outlast them and arrest them all, as public sentiment toward them becomes less and less sentimental. He's perhaps calculating that if that fails, the public at large will be on his side if he brings in the army. These may be a shrewd calculations. But they’re a gamble, and they’re a gamble with lives. If the police can’t keep this under control, people will get hurt or die: in accidents, fires, and violence.
He is no doubt thinking the optics of bringing in the military are so bad that he can't afford it, especially with the European Parliament elections coming up. (Don't forget: Macron has other serious responsibilities. With the US on whatever distant planet it's gone to, Britain in convulsions, and Russia licking its chops, Macron is the only serious head of a Western state with a serious military. He's able to count beyond his own fingers and toes and he's neither a communist nor a fascist. He is critically important for Europe right now.)
Nonetheless, if Macron’s government can’t manage to reform this economy and keep the peace in France, there will be no Europe anyway. His coalition may be wiped out in May, but if he stays the course—and if the reforms (or the business cycle) result in a strong economic uptick, and if he gets very lucky, by the time 2022 comes around, this may be forgotten. But not if this ends in a bloodbath.
Symbolically, the Gilets Jaunes represent “real France.” And most of them are. I’ve spent hours speaking to them. The overwhelming majority are sympathetic, worn-out, middle-class, middle-aged, and hardworking French men and women. They probably represent about 40-50 percent of the French population. Macron can't afford to make of them all the Enemy; he'll provoke something far worse than the situation we’ve got.
Still, without declaring a state of emergency, I don’t see how the violent contingent can be managed. The police, on their own, are demonstrably unable to quell an uprising of that size and scale. There’s no way to exceed the numbers of cops they put on the street. Last weekend was all they had. Macron cannot assume that Act V will be less violent than Acts III and IV. And obviously, yes, this is taking resources away from critical counter-terror missions.
16. As for the actual problem ... Notably, no one on the Left or the Right has the faintest idea what to do, what to propose, as a serious remedy for the Gilets Jaunes' problems. Le Pen, rubbing her hands, and Mélenchon, grinning like a lunatic, could think only to call for the dissolution of Parliament and new elections. The economist Thomas Piketty has been on national television; when he's not babbling incoherently about inherited wealth, he was busy twitching and fussing with his collar. On the other side was someone from the Gilets Jaunes. Wearing a remarkably ill-fitting black wig, he accused everyone who spoke before him, or who was speaking as he was speaking, of blah-blah-blahsm. He had a point.
But Macron entirely lacks the gravitas to deliver this message. From him, it would sound like ridicule. He has no authority to offer what would genuinely be revolutionary ideas in France.
France is, au fond, a conservative country that treasures its old traditions: peasant uprisings, regicide, and economic self-sabotage. It doesn't want to change.
*Among the grievances of the protesters is the newly-raised speed limit. The government is right and they are wrong. If you've ever driven in rural France, you know this. I made this case, but they were unpersuaded: They think they're terrific drivers.
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