Yellow Vests ( Yellow Vests ("Gilets Jaunes") protest in the city of Lille on Sat 22 December for 'Act VI'. Photo: Twitter/GiletsJaunes_FR

The Yellow Vests outwitted Macron’s repressive state forces to stage a surprise mobilisation in Paris and storm towns and roundabouts across France, reports Susan Ram

To the consternation of the French state and mainstream media, Gilets Jaunes (GJs) came out in their tens of thousands on Saturday December 22 for Act VI (the sixth weekend) of nationwide anti-Macron, anti-austerity action, just three days before Christmas.

The fresh eruption of fluorescent yellow across the land gave the finger to official and MSM claims that the movement was weakening. Attempts to propagate this storyline rested on reports of lower GJ turn-outs the previous Saturday. But if the numbers on December 15 were down on previous weekends, the likelihood that this was in part due to blocking actions by the security forces - physically preventing thousands of protestors penetrating Paris and other urban centres - was reinforced by events just a week later.

Drawing lessons from the preceding Saturday, the GJs once again shifted gear. Operation Confuse, Divert and Deflect got under way across the social media. It was put about that Versailles, roughly 12 miles west of the capital, would be the primary target for those mobilising in Paris on December 22. Elsewhere, roundabouts that had been occupied for weeks were suddenly evacuated in a manner suggestive of surrender. By Friday, very substantial deployments of police and security personnel were in place to secure Versailles from its would-be assailants. In general, it was expected that Christmas preparations, together with weariness after repeated days of protest, would work to substantially demobilise the movement.

It speaks to the strength, resilience, adaptability and sheer grit of the Gilets Jaunes that this expectation was so conclusively demolished. At 9 o’clock on the morning of December 22, a Facebook message went out to Paris-based GJs, calling on them to assemble in the very heart of the capital: at the hill-top precinct of Sacré-Coeur Cathedral in Montmartre. Thousands responded, crumpling their yellow jackets in pockets or stuffing them down trouser legs as they hurried to the venue.

Videos posted on Youtube capture the extraordinary scenes that followed. First, the gradual yellowing of the cathedral concourse; upshots from the steps show chanting protestors waving placards against the familiar backdrop of white domes and cupolas. Then a cascade of movement down the steps and into the jumble of narrow lanes below, participants roaring out the Marseillaise and unstoppable in the face of a feeble police presence. Where GJs find a lane or street  blocked to them, they nimbly turn tracks; the march breaks up, then reconstitutes itself; police stumble about helplessly at the end of columns, as if mere spectators.

All the time onwards, ever deeper into historic, tourist and commercial Paris: past the Bourse (the stock exchange) and the major commercial hub of Les Halles; past the Louvre and the Opéra; then on into the grand boulevards, past the glitzy window displays of department store Les Galeries Lafayette (which promptly closes on this, the final Saturday before Christmas).  Everywhere, shows of support and solidarity – from bus drivers, groups of visiting tourists eager for selfies, tooting motorists, shoppers and passers-by applauding from the pavements. Onwards, ever closer to the ‘red zone’ (high security area), always with more joining in, the jackets of some inscribed with the dates of the actions they’ve participated in. Inevitably, by mid-afternoon a ferocious police presence outside the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), and mass arrests. But nothing seems to stem the flow; by evening thousands are again romping along the Champs-Élysées, the high-visibility target that so much effort had gone into denying them just a week earlier.

Agility in revolt

Outside Paris, a similar picture of agility in revolt, of flexibility in the face of state efforts to rein the movement in. Once again, Bordeaux and Toulouse proved muscular centres of GJ mobilisation, with thousands on the streets amid the Christmas shoppers in both locations. Many of those demonstrating wore Santa hats or other seasonal tokens; at Caën in Normandy the presence of Santa Claus spurred contemptuous chants of ‘Petit Macron Noël!’ (‘Père Noël’ is French for Father Christmas).  

Across France, hundreds of roundabouts were again blocked, including numbers of those ‘surrendered’ during the previous week, and numerous motorway tollbooths were closed to lorry traffic (while often opened up to motorists, toll-free). A round-up of actions conducted by a media outlet in just one part of France (les Alpes-Maritimes and the Var) notched up dozens of roundabouts and tolls blocked, with huge disruption to freight movements.

A key feature of Act VI was a concerted effort, across several venues and in different parts of the country, to block traffic at international borders: a tactic of particular relevance in the immediate pre-Christmas period. Border blocking took place near Strasbourg, where barricades disrupted traffic attempting to enter Germany; in the Pays-Basque near St Jean de Luz on the Spanish frontier; and at Le Boulou, near Perpignan: another key crossing point into Spain (Catalonia).

All of this points to a less than cheery, ego-boosting Christmas for the current occupant of the Élysée Palace. When Ebenezer Macron, alias the gilded Scrooge, hangs up his stocking for Santa on Christmas Eve, he will do so to the mood music neither of carollers nor of schmaltzy seasonal crooners. It will be the music of the streets, redolent of revolutionary traditions as well as present discontents. Resonant, insistent and glorious, this is music that refuses to die away.

Gallery of videos and images

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.