Riots in Paris as new French revolution brews

Red flag: 89,000 police officers were deployed across France to tackle the protesters.

Should we support the protesters? Violence erupted in France for the fourth weekend in a row as President Macron failed to appease demonstrators. They are the country’s worst riots in decades.

Chaos descended on the streets of France on Saturday as violent protests erupted for the fourth weekend in a row.

Across the country, 125,000 demonstrators came out in force, including 10,000 in Paris, where rioters torched cars, smashed shop windows and built barricades.

“I have never seen the kind of wanton destruction that surrounded me on some of the smartest streets of Paris,” reported John Lichfield. “Such random, hysterical hatred, directed not just towards the riot police but at shrines to the French republic.”

Parts of the city were locked down as the police fought protesters with tear gas, water cannons and armoured vehicles. More than 1,700 people were arrested and 135 injured. Four people have been killed in the violence in recent weeks.

But what sparked the uprising?

The protests began in November in response to sharp tax increases on diesel fuel. Protesters wore yellow high-visibility jackets, and quickly earned the nickname "gilets jaunes" (yellow vests).

French President Emmanuel Macron claimed the tax was needed to “protect the environment”, but opponents saw it as an attack on working people already struggling to get by.

Macron subsequently suspended the tax hike, but the rioting has only worsened — protesters becoming enraged at a much wider range of social problems.

“Unemployment, discrimination and poverty are at the root of the daily humiliation French people feel,” writes journalist Rokhaya Diallo. Their demands include wage increases, more taxes on the wealthy and reductions in living costs. Some simply want Macron to go.

A poll taken last Friday reported that 66% of the French public support the movement, however, some fear it is being hijacked by political extremists. France’s interior minister, Christophe Castaner, claimed that far-right and far-left rioters have infiltrated the group “to take advantage of the chaos to smash up and steal from shops.”

Furthermore, the group’s lack of clear leadership makes it difficult for a peaceful solution to be negotiated with authorities.

Should we support the protesters?

Révolution!

Of course, some people argue. The core aims of the protesters are just. Our world is becoming unfair, with the richest citizens benefiting at the expense of those at the bottom. It is time for Macron, and other world leaders, to consider the interests of all levels of society — not just the business elites.

No, others respond. The rampant and mindless violence on show is only damaging France further and will do nothing to create a better life for those in need. Furthermore, encouraging the protesters may even spark similar scenes in Britain. We need constructive dialogue and compromise, not anger and violence.

You Decide

  1. Is violent protest a just way to achieve change?
  2. Could protests like this spread to Britain?

Activities

  1. What issue would you feel strongly enough about to attend a protest? Discuss your ideas in pairs or small groups before feeding back to the class.
  2. This is the biggest uprising in France since the famous student protests of May 1968. Do some research into what happened that year. How are the protests of May 1968 similar and different to what is happening in France now?

Some People Say...

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty.”

Henry David Thoreau

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There is a solid economic basis for the protesters’ unrest. According to an analysis of France’s latest budget, carried out by its public policy institute, the poorest quarter of households would largely see incomes fall or remain the same. By contrast, those in the top 1% would benefit from a large rise in income. This has fuelled the idea that French society is rigged to benefit the elite.
What do we not know?
How Macron will respond to the continued protests, and if he will give any more concessions beyond the tax rise he has already suspended. He is due to meet business leaders and unions on Monday in an attempt to resolve the crisis. We do not know how long the protests will continue for.

Word Watch

Barricades
A barrier constructed across a street to delay the movement of opposing forces. Barricades are famously associated with the French Revolution in 1789.
Locked down
Landmarks including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre were closed, and shops along the Champs-Élysées were boarded up.
Diesel
A type of fuel for vehicles. Authorities are cracking down on the substance due to the high levels of pollution it produces.
High-visibility jackets
Under French law, motorists are required to have the jackets stored in their vehicles.
Emmanuel Macron
Former investment banker and the youngest president of France in history — elected at the age of just 39.
Environment
See the Washington Post link in Become An Expert for more on the environmental context to the protests.
To go
He won a landslide election victory last year, but his approval rating his since crashed to below 20%.