15 December 2018
With thoughts of a nice warming coffee and maybe a cake in the Jardin du Luxembourg cafe evaporating, we peered through the locked gates and wondered what to do next. It was one o’clock and both of us were cold, damp and feeling rather hungry. Our early breakfast seemed like a lifetime ago and we’d been walking more or less the whole time since then. The little cafe we’d stopped at before on Boulevard Saint Michel sprang to mind so we headed towards it.
As we walked we theorised about the locked gates of the park.
”Perhaps something has happened inside?” Commando suggested. “That police van must be there for a reason.”
”I wonder what though?” I said, “There was no one inside the gates that I could see and no police in the van.”
“It could be anything but, after the terrorist attack in Strasbourg last week, I guess they’re taking no chances, France does seem to have more than its fair share of these things.”
This was a sobering thought, News footage of the aftermath of Tuesday’s attack in the Strasbourg Christmas market was fresh in my mind. Five people had died and eleven were injured by a French Algerian terrorist with a gun and a knife. He managed to escape the scene in a taxi but was eventually found on Thursday and died in a shoot out with police. The attack was never going to stop us visiting Paris because these things can happen anywhere, but the locked park gates suddenly took on a sinister significance.
La Croissanterie was a welcome sight. We stepped inside to a world of mouthwatering treats and the wonderful smell of coffee. The young man who served us spoke perfect English and was quite chatty. He seemed surprised to learn the park was closed.
“Perhaps it is because of the Gilets Jaunes,” he suggested.
Of course we’d heard all about the Gilets Jaunes on the news at home. The yellow vests movement was sparked by an online petition in May 2018. The petition, aimed at economic justice and motivated by rising fuel prices, government tax reforms and a spiralling cost of living, had almost a million signatures. By November, the online rumblings had become protest marches, with roads and fuel depots blocked. The protesters all wore yellow high vis jackets, the kind everyone has to carry in their car in France in case of an accident or breakdown. The French are, at the best of times, a militant nation and President Macron, with his ‘let them eat cake’ attitude and smug smile, seems to be quite unpopular. He would probably do well to read his French history and see where such attitudes have led in the past.
Inevitably, some of the marches turned into riots. Those in Paris on 1 December were particularly nasty with more than one hundred cars burned and the Arc de Triomph vandalised. For this reason we’d decided to avoid the area around Champs Elysees where it seemed most of the problems occurred.
When we left the cafe the young man warned us to be careful in case the Gilets Jaunes were about. It wasn’t long before we saw signs that they were. Soon after we crossed the Seine and were back on Boulevard de Sébastopol, close to Rue de Rivoli, we saw a long line of blue police vans at the side of the road. Amongst them was a strange tank like vehicle that we assumed was for a water cannon. There were no yellow jackets anywhere in view but we knew they must be nearby. Perhaps this explained the locked parks.
A few moments later a couple of men in yellow vests passed us. Whether they were protestors or just workmen of some kind we couldn’t tell but they seemed fairly harmless. We carried on walking and the rain kept on falling.
Five minutes later, as we were approaching the junction with Rue du Borg L’Abbé, we heard sirens. The gendarmes were obviously on the move. All the blue vans we’d just passed came speeding up the road, including the scary looking tank. WE stopped to watch and I took the video below. Before they reached us they turned off onto Rue aux Ours. We breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever was going on was obviously not ahead.
We kept on walking but we didn’t get far. As we approached the zebra crossing we saw a huge crowd of people walking down the road towards us. The Gilets Jaunes had found us! It seemed they had also somehow evaded all the police. Commando came over all protective and tried to stand in front of me as they turned and marched in front of us along Rue de Turbigo. They didn’t look very scary as far as I could see though so I got out my phone and began to film them. It isn’t every day you get caught up in a mass protest march after all. The video I took is below.
There were an awful lot of Gilets Jaunes and Commando kept trying to get in front of me so I soon gave up filming and just took photos instead. None of the protesters seemed in the least bit threatening. In fact, they all looked to be having rather a nice time, walking along with their yellow jackets and placards chatting to each other. They seemed to be a mixture of all ages and classes, not at all the militant young hooligans they’d been portrayed by the press.
It was a good ten minutes before the crowd of protesters thinned out enough for us to get across the road and continue our journey. In all that time we hadn’t seen a single gendarme. A few hundred yards further up the now empty road though, a whole group of police in full riot gear came past us. With their flack jackets, visored helmets and, most scarily, machine guns, they looked way more frightening than all of the Gilets Jaunes put together.
It was raining even harder by now and it was quite a relief to know the protesters were all behind us now. At least we thought they were. Then, as we were approaching the junction of Rue Réaumur, we saw blue flashing lights ahead. Another mass of police vehicles, white ones this time, were careering across the junction. Either there were more Gilets Jaunes about or the police were spectacularly bad at finding them.
On we walked, rather hoping the police didn’t manage to catch up with the protesters. From what I could see the yellow vests looked to be far more harmless than the police and I didn’t like the idea of them being tear gassed, water cannoned, or shot at. When we came to Boulevard Saint Denis a whole host of police vans were parked up and a small crowd had gathered at the crossroads to see what was happening.
After a few minutes of standing watching nothing much happen Commando decided to walk up Boulevard Saint Denis and see what, if anything, was going on. Against my better judgement, I followed. When we reached the Porte Saint Martin we found a scene of chaos. Half the road was blocked by police and protestors and the traffic was backed up trying to find a way around them.
On a different day I might have admired the beautiful monumental archway, commissioned by Louis XIV in 1674. The Porte Saint Martin was built by architect Pierre Bullet, a student of François Blondel who built the nearby Porte Saint Denis, to honor the capture of Franche–Comté. It replaced the original medieval gateway in the wall built by Charles V in around 1356 to protect the Right Bank of the city. Today all I could think about was tear gas and freezing water.
Luckily the protesters began to march off along Rue Saint Martin and we escaped the teargas and water cannon, if not the traffic jam. When we set out on our quiet afternoon stroll our main worry had been the rain. In the end our walk turned out to be far more eventful than either of us could ever have imagined.