Stumbling out of the metro station at Champ de Mars, camera in hand and excitement brewing for the sights of bustling Paris, I was excited for a care-free weekend of roaming the French capital’s streets and enjoying all that was to offer to fulfil all basic tourist needs. Instead, we were greeted with silence. Police vans at either end of the streets made for an eerily quiet city.
Anticipation was no longer brewing for what crepe I was going to munch on over lunch, instead the anticipation became more a feeling of nervousness. Were we going to get caught up in the ongoing protests that lined the Parisian pavements? The news had been scary, fires and violence being the main headlines of what seemed to be chaotic ‘Les gilet jaunes’ protests. I would be lying if I were to say I wasn’t slightly scared.
The protests had been going on for thirteen weeks by this point, and the sheer numbers of people in yellow vests didn’t seem to die for the final weekend of action. The anger stemmed from the rise in fuel prices, almost a 20% increase on diesel, announced by President Emmanuel Macron back in November of 2018, but it seemed to turn into a reason to raise other issues within the government. People were protesting not only the fuel prices, but demanding better salaries, improvements on social security and higher pensions, to name a few. The people of France felt like they could trust Macron when he was elected, with false promises of a better country, and felt let down by the government – something that feels quite close to home and relatable to a lot of us Brits too.
As we strolled the quiet streets and headed to our first activity of the weekend, a sight spotting river cruise, we could hear the chants of the yellow-vested citizens from a distance. We boarded the boat and babbled about how the Eiffel Tower looked smaller than we thought it would be (we wouldn’t be saying this later as we closed our eyes climbing the 324m iron structure), putting the chants and abrupt bomb sounding bangs to the back of our minds. Only a few minutes in, as we approached the first bridge, the bright yellow vests once more came into our sight as we floated past. If anything, we couldn’t help but cheer for them. Agree with them in what they were fighting for, we didn’t feel scared, it wasn’t us they were coming for after all. It wasn’t their tear gas that burnt our throats and made our eyes water, it was that of the police force trying to deter them from protesting and control the mass crowds. In that moment, seeing the smoke and the flares was no longer a terrifying thought – they were marching for what they felt was right, and I agreed with them.
The boat cruise went by in a blur of coughs and burning throats from all on board the top deck, I admired the Notre Dame and Parisian architecture through seeping eyes, but it was all still beautiful nonetheless. After an over priced croque monsieur from a nearby café, we headed up the Eiffel tower to admire the city from above. As we realised how unfit we were clambering up the many steps to get the best view, we were once more greeted with a sea of yellow vests from down below. Typical, wasn’t it? The Eiffel Tower was the last stop on the march, and we had got there just minutes before to watch it all unfold. More cheers, chants, sirens and fireworks surrounded the tourist attraction as we all watched from above eagle eyed, but not too much happened. If anything, the protests seemed peaceful compared to how angry they all sounded. Police vans lined up and small fires had started as protesters didn’t know what to do with themselves as their demonstration came to an end. It seemed like a cry for help, the frustration of the thirteen weeks had gotten to them and what else were they to do? Not a great or smart idea, but an understandable one.
After a couple of hours admiring the city and feeling weirdly comforted by the sounds of what was going on down below (probably as it distracted us from how high up we were), we headed towards the lift to descend. But everywhere seemed too packed – the stairs were blocked off and the lifts were out of use. No one told us what was going on as we aimlessly walked round trying to figure out how to get off the Eiffel tower. “You could be here for ten minutes or three hours,” a guy trying to sell us overpriced croissant shaped key rings told us. Nobody in, nobody out. So, what was going on? Was it as mad down below as everybody had made out?
Forty-five minutes passed until we were pushed and shoved into a lift to finally exit. And down on the streets below it was as if nothing had happened. Small remains of fires were scattered about, but nothing too extreme. The protesters had been ushered away and the streets cleared. Paris was calm once more. But who knows what the outcome of these protests means for France? Sometimes frustration can cause many to act in a way they would never normally, and whilst not condoning the actions of the few out of the thousands that gave these protests a violent image, you can also understand the rage fueled by feeling let down by your government. Very relatable, indeed.