We were not the only ones taking pictures in the 8th arrondissement Sunday morning, Dec. 2, after the third Yellow Vest Saturday national protests injured more than 100 in Paris, resulted in more than 400 arrests, and produced scenes of havoc and violence reminiscent of civil war.
Like other neighborhood residents, we wanted to record the remains of a day when we watched casseurs wearing yellow vests set fires, stone police vans, and flee tear gas while helicopters circled overhead. The damage was widespread. Businesses large and small were vandalized; a veterinary clinic, pizza restaurant, and optician’s office lay open, their windows smashed and their contents rifled. A motorcycle carcass abutted a hotel where it had fed a large fire; cars, ATMs, construction sites, and banks were charred and destroyed. Yellow paint and graffiti, often obscene, were everywhere—Jail Macron, Macron Resign, and Misery. A social movement forged over Facebook to protest a heightened gas tax had burgeoned into a state crisis.
Street fires were not what we imagined would illuminate the City of Light when we moved here for a year. But as a historian of modern Europe, I should not have been surprised by the emergence of a class-based social movement.
Workers’ revolts have a long and storied history in France. From the French Revolution to the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the Commune in 1871, and the August 1944 general strike that helped liberate Paris from the Nazis to the 7 million workers who struck alongside student protestors in May 1968, French workers claim a tradition of political street protest like no other Europeans. Historical markers in the city, including one at Place de la Bastille, salute workers who raised barricades and died for their cause. Such historical reverence reinforces the pride French laborers take in their successes. Indeed, they have secured hard-fought and far-reaching employment safeguards and benefits, making them among the most protected employees in the world.
French workers don’t need to rattle off dates to be immersed in the country’s tradition of political activism and culture of the strike. The historical resonances of the Yellow Vest movement abound, from the invocation of French revolutionary cahiers de doléances and the Estates General to the warning to President Emmanuel Macron that “We cut off heads for less than this.”
Graffiti makes explicit reference to the student-led uprisings that rocked the French state 50 years ago—May 1968, December 2018 and CRS = SS, equating the national police force with the Nazis. Indeed, when casseurs torched cars and dug out cobblestones from the streets, they mimicked the tactics of the “Sixty-Eighters” occupying the Sorbonne and fighting the CRS.
The shadow of history makes the recent damage done to the Arc de Triomphe all the more symbolically powerful and shocking. Yellow-vested protesters, singing the “Marseillaise,” surrounded the eternal flame of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before climbing atop the Arc de Triomphe while vandals spray-painted the monument, ravaged its museum, and damaged sculptural symbols of the Revolution.
It was telling that Macron visited the Arc de Triomphe immediately after returning to France from the G-20 meetings in Argentina. The product of an elite French education, the president is steeped in the French past, lacing his speeches with literary and historical lessons and references. His recognition of the crimes of the French empire, elaborate commemoration of the end of World War I, invocations of Europe in the 1930s, warnings against nationalism, and proposals to strengthen the European Union all rest on a personal conviction that the past matters and should guide current events.
But the pathos and victories of French workers are far easier to romanticize outside the chambers of the Palais de l’Élysée. The attacks on Macron – and on his wife, Brigitte – are reminiscent of the personalization of monarchical politics, when protestors lay blame for systemic and long-term failures at the feet of privileged individuals deaf to common concerns. Macron and his government certainly bear considerable responsibility for the current political crisis. But the Yellow Vests’ unifying slogan, “Macron Resign,” offers a simplistic solution to a complex and protracted set of challenges made all the more exigent by global warming.
With calls for a fourth Saturday of Yellow Vest protest and the movement embedded throughout the country, the prospect of continued activism and renewed violence looms large. Macron may not lose his head, but a political strategy of divide and conquer, as practiced by President Charles de Gaulle in 1968, promises only short-term stability.
History suggests that what happened in Paris on Dec. 1, 2018, has deep and complex roots. As merchants in the 8th arrondissement and other sectors of Paris carry out their repairs, the question of who will write the next chapter of French history remains open.
Professor of History Maria Mitchell is author of “The Origins of Christian Democracy: Politics and Confession in Modern Germany.” She is currently in Paris researching a project on the Franco-German 1982 World Cup match.
“Street fires were not what we imagined would illuminate the City of Light when we moved here for a year. But as a historian of modern Europe, I should not have been surprised by the emergence of a class-based social movement.”