I would rather watch something lighter, but my grandmother keeps returning to news of the gilets jaunes protest. The protesters are on every television channel, in their neon yellow vests, squaring off against the police in Paris and blocking highways in the regions. They have set up tires along the little road by the gas station attached to the Auchan department store, behind the home that my father and stepmother share in Châtellerault. Their protest is distinct from the strikes that have had high schoolers walking out of their lycées. The minors are angry about—among other things—changes to the monumental BAC exam that they fear will favor their well-off peers. By the time I arrive in France, the protest is on its fourth or fifth day. Footage has just emerged of teenagers on their knees, hands behind their necks, surrounded by police. The kneeling teenagers are in Mantes-La-Jolie, a poorer banlieue of Paris that is very Black and Arab. The Minister of Education insists that the children were placed in this position to be kept safe while the police searched them for evidence relating to an act of vandalism committed nearby.
The image is unsettling and instantly becomes iconic. For the government, it is a PR nightmare. In the car on the way to the rehabilitation facility where my grandfather is recovering from surgery, we listen to people call in to a radio show. A man in his 70s expresses dismay at the excess of force. He’s old enough to recall France’s flirtations with fascism. Another feels certain that kids in the wealthy Parisian Sixth Arrondissement would never be subjected to the treatment reserved for the banlieue. He’s not wrong. A woman calls in and says the children are savages. The host tries convincing her to hang up, I think, before her racism graduates from innuendos. Someone cuts to commercial. My grandmother keeps her eyes on the road.
I never thought I’d be following the gilets jaunes protests from France this weekend, but my grandfather is unwell. He fell while opening the door of the fridge, but the doctors say his femoral neck was already broken by the time he lost his balance. It’s the kind of thing one can expect from living with a Paget diagnosis, a rot of the bone tissue that sharply curves the body of its hosts. When I called my grandmother on the phone the previous weekend, she said the surgeon inserted a nail into his hip and closed him up in an hour. He’d awakened but she warned me that he struggled to recognize faces, struggled to speak, struggled to hear, struggled to see, struggled to eat. His 89th year here has not been very kind to him. Anyway, she’d looked for a black coat in town (no luck). I nodded as though she could hear it and bought a ticket home.
Age is a cruel thing. In his youth, my grandfather was a real paysan—a blacksmith and a farmer, born and raised in the countryside. Unlike me, he derived immense pleasure from manual labor. He worked late in life, climbing on ladders and fixing stuff himself so he wouldn’t have to give another man an extra penny, until Parkinson’s made his hands shake too much and the medication clouded his mind. I remember being drawn to the steady strike of the iron emanating from his shop on the edge of the farm. I’d wait for a pause to ask him what he was making. “A gate,” he’d sometimes say. Other times, a horseshoe or scissors to break stone. Then, we’d have nothing more to say to each other so I’d go back to my thing, and he to his. He was stern with children—with his own son, with me, and with his next two granddaughters—but he was better with adults. I can still see him at family reunions in the ’90s, his spirits brightened with wine, singing gaily for the party to the accompaniment of his accordion. My crotchety grandfather, life of the party. People are complicated.
We arrive at the treatment and physical rehabilitation center in Loudun, the second closest town to the village after Richelieu. My grandfather seems lost and tired, at times embarrassed. He is in the silk pajamas that my grandmother has brought him so that he doesn’t have to wear the hospital gowns. I’d never seen my grandfather in pajamas before this week. When I slept over as a kid, he was always up and working by the time I got up. I’d also never placed my hand on his shoulder tenderly or caressed his hand to stop him from reaching for his hallucinations until now either. We stay for two hours until he falls asleep.
My father, stepmother, and I are all glad that this fall has opened my grandmother’s eyes to the fact that she needs a home aide to help care for her husband, if he comes home. Where I live now, in Washington D.C., such a suggestion would create financial anxiety, but this is not America so money never really comes up. No one frets over how much the stay will cost, or whether the doctors are injecting him with generic medication. Whatever the end of the road is for our family, it will not be pages of billing and harassing calls from debt collectors. My grandfather is 100 percent disabled, so my grandmother knows that when she does ask for help, the state will give it to her. Simple as that. In this way, things are better here. My father is often astonished when I tell him what things Americans must handle without support from the government. Yet France is restless. In some towns, it is burning.
The gilets jaunes crowd is diverse in age and race and gender and politics, but it is more white and middle-aged than you think. The news anchors have a hard time identifying the heads of the movement or its political leanings. The demonstration began with an online petition, signed by over 900,000 people, denouncing the hikes in the fuel taxes set to become effective in January 2019 and urging people to protest the higher prices. On Saturday, December 2, over 50,000 protesters descended upon Paris. Their signs evoke the revolts of May 1968 and the French Revolution of 1789. Some call the President “King Macron” and call for his immediate resignation. They are workers, small business owners, unemployed people, young radicals from the left and the right. It is hard to say exactly what everyone wants. The movement is not uniform, nor is it a traditional movement where a slate of leaders set demands and take the uprising from there. I suspect the demands that have made it into the government’s hands don’t reflect the views of all the movement’s adherents. How can they, when one poll shows that 40 percent of the gilets jaunes voted for neofascist Marine Le Pen in the presidential election, 20 percent voted for leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and only 5 percent voted for Emmanuel Macron? It’s complicated.
I want to figure what this gilets jaunes movement is about, might as well since I’m here, but my attention is elsewhere. I am trying to be present with my grandmother in our two days together. We kill time chatting, eating, and chastising her possessed little terrier, but the coverage of the gilets jaunes is inescapable, so we go back to that intermittently. Reception is terrible on the farm but just enough for me to catch the proliferation of takes on my American social media feeds. Predictably, the diagnoses confirm each side’s own political tendencies. The conspiracy theorists think it’s Russia, as if the French have ever needed help to complain about anything to anyone. The right praises the nationalist currents of the protest and decides that this is what happens when you tax … anyone. Centrists with no understanding of French politics or language weigh in: The gilets jaunes are an extremist reaction against a common sense climate change measure. In the same breath, they denounce their American peers on the left for cheering the uprising on. Every thoughtless tweet from Neera Tanden, the captain of the Center for American Progress ship, sends my blood pressure up. Telle ignorance! Meanwhile, the left claims a revolt against neoliberalism and centrist policies intended to shield the rich and let the working class shoulder the burden of combating climate change. I envy the latter’s seemingly complete confidence in the gilets jaunes, but until I see the demands, I cannot help but remain wary. The lines between conservatives and progressives in France don’t track American politics cleanly.
For one, the American centrists are unfair to characterize the demonstrations against the fuel tax as ignorant of the importance of fighting climate change. France is less tolerant of climate change skepticism and the closest Marine Le Pen gets to denial is expressing a preference for continued debate on the extent to which global warming is man-made, which is miles away from openly calling the whole thing a hoax. It’s been a dry year for France, too, with each year marked with canicules — weeks of merciless heat that test the agricultural regions’ will to survive. Days from winter, the fields of rapeseed and wheat on the way to the village are greener than in the late summer, when the countryside was a parched brown. Then there’s the uncomfortable reality that the French far left and far right share an anti-immigration, protectionist instinct derived from the same strain of chauvinism. The French are also further to the left in general than Americans. They have a different baseline of expectations from their government, which puts them to the left of the American neoconservatives and libertarians on economic matters. Again, not so black and white.
I don’t know exactly where my father stands on the gilets jaunes. As the contrarian that he is, my father’s support of the gilets jaunes depends on whatever he thinks will get a rise out of my stepmother. He thinks he’s funny, my father. He’s a centrist in earnest and voted for Macron in 2017, but has said to me that he feels disappointed. Left behind. He thinks Socialist ex-president François Hollande was a president to the poor and Macron is a president to the rich, with no interest in the middle class. That’s it, that’s the whole extent of the analysis. He doesn’t have any great insight on the gilets jaunes other than sympathy for their exasperation. I don’t push. To be frank, my father has other things on his mind. It’s not just that my grandfather may be dying. The Fonderie du Poitou, a factory where he has toiled for almost forty years, is on the brink of failure. This is a cyclical problem for them but this time could mark the end of the factory. Its finances were in such dire conditions that a judicial administrator has been installed until February, by which deadline the factory must find a party willing to buy it for 20 to 30 million Euros. Otherwise … well.
My father planned to retire at the end of 2019 but is willing to take an early retirement if he can get it approved. The stress of the company’s well-being isn’t worth any more of his health and already, he’s given it so much. I realize now that I only have a childish understanding of what my father actually does when he goes in. I know that the factory melts sand for parts that are intended for diesel cars, a disappearing breed. And I know that every other week, he leaves home around 5AM for the early shift. That his work gave him a bulging disk that’s quieted down in the last decade. That his work deposited a sprinkling of asbestos dust on his lungs five days a week for decades until the poison calcified into little plates that sit on his breathing organs but to the doctor’s astonishment, never evolved into cancer. The French government has a fund for that kind of thing, though, which is why my father may be able to afford retirement at age 58. The newer hires were mostly brought in under temporary contracts, CDDs we call them, that won’t let them build the solid middle class life that my father could with barely a high school degree. I don’t know what will happen to them when the factory shuts its doors for good. The national unemployment is at 9 percent in France and my hometown isn’t exactly brimming with opportunities. While I cannot find statistics on Châtellerault’s unemployment, I’d bet my grandparents’ farm that it is higher than the national average. Some of these youths would do anything for my father’s back-breaking, asbestos-exhaling, so-called “good” job.
My grandmother is mostly annoyed by the looting from last week. This is what the coverage has disproportionately focused on—the windows broken last Saturday and the stores cleaned up by people who maybe were or maybe weren’t associated with the demonstration. Some merchants in the capital board their windows and hire discrete private security details. For many, sales for the holiday season sales are down from last year, although no one can say if it’s the protests, the economy, or both. The government has mobilized 89,000 officers around the country in a more aggressive effort to prepare for the next confirmed round of mass protesting, scheduled for Saturday, December 8th. They are arresting hundreds of people who haven’t done anything yet, which gives the American in me goosebumps. They insist that they will not deploy the army, for which I suppose we should be thankful. People seem certain that the violence will be worse this time, and there are multiple calls for people to protest in their home regions rather than Paris.
When we visit my grandfather a second time on December 8th, the protest is in full swing and broadcast live on the television in his room. The Champs Elysées and the Place de la Bastille are emptier than expected, which may have to do with the government’s draconian round-up of protesters in advance of trouble. The gilets jaunes kneel symbolically, like the high school students, before the lines of riot police. Peaceful protest doesn’t spike ratings, so eventually the cameras turn back to more tense exchanges and eventually recycle footage of riot cops nabbing protesters and exchanging tear gas grenades. The press has little time to waste on the two dozen or so demands remitted to the government by those protesters who became prominent as the movement gained traction. All afternoon, they air interviews of protesters denouncing the window-breakers a hundred different ways. My grandfather’s eyes glaze over and I’m not sure he knows about the unrest outside of his room. He seems more alert today and perhaps recognizes me, but I’m not sure he quite grasps how unusual it is for me to back so soon. When we leave, I say goodbye to him cheerfully. Despite the ball burning through my throat. “You gotta keep up the morale, okay? I’ll see you next year, okay?” Neither of us believes this.
I brace myself as I prepare to look up the protesters’ demands, but the asks are surprisingly progressive with the exception of a couple of potentially reactionary points. I wonder if supporters of Mélenchon got ahold of the protesters charged with writing the demands, or if they were Mélenchon supporters themselves. The left’s prints are all over this. I cannot kid myself or you that these demands reflect the full political wants and beliefs of the thousands of French who have joined the gilets jaunes protests. But the demands that make it into the hands of the government first become the default demands of the movement and have the power to shape its political identity. It is not the fairest process, but it beats becoming a movement with no demands.
Beyond demanding a halt to the fuel tax scheduled to become effective in January 2019, the gilets jaunes ask for a lower tax on energy products and instead suggest that the government raise a tax on maritime fuel and on kerosene. They also demand subsidies for cars that run on hydrogen rather than electricity. They call for de-privatizing the gas and electricity providers, and demand lower taxes on small businesses and individuals (note here that the French pay significantly more in wage taxes than Americans), prioritizing the support of small businesses over large corporations and chains, and an end to the collection of credit card fees from merchants. They ask for an end to austerity measures, and ask for additional investment to get unemployed people back to work and more training programs to transition workers into new positions. They ask for an increase in the minimum wage and a parity in work protections afforded to French workers and foreign workers working in France and in the French territories. They ask for a review of the limits applicable to renting assistance, an urgent end to homelessness, and more ecologically-sound housing. They demand an end to the closures of smaller post offices, public schools, and birth hospitals. Also, higher benefits for disabled people, along with more inclusivity measures in all aspects of life including cultural activities.
More fundamentally, they ask for a mechanism in the constitution to trigger referendums, a return to the seven-year presidential term from the current five-year term, and an end to lifetime salaries for presidents of the republic. I recoil at the more reactionary asks: a pause on policies that encourage immigration while France is in supposed crisis, a more forceful requirement that foreigners integrate in French life (including through language and knowledge of the country’s history), and an elusive demand that products that “belong to France” no longer be sold abroad and in places like airports. Ah, there it is. The faint smell of nationalism and xenophobia. Welcome to France. The reactionary asks don’t work for my brand of radical politics, as you might imagine. I may be French, but my skin is black and my blood Cameroonian. No familial adoption can change that. Closed borders engender violence and pain and, anyway, the European Union should take more refugees and make it easier to transition from being undocumented to having papers. But the economic asks are ambitious—a Christmas wish list, as the centrists on the RTL radio deride it on Monday morning—and there are more of them than the xenophobic line items.
I catch my flight back for the United States on Monday, December 10th. I am not sure my grandfather will make it through the week, and I am not sure my father will be able to hold on to his job through his original retirement date, and I am not sure whether I’ve missed a glaring element with the gilets jaunes. They have the numbers, sure, but without a clear political direction among the protesters—outside the shape given to the demonstrations by the demands—I worry that this wave will peter out when everyone goes home to their families for Christmas Eve. I hope I am wrong. I hope they hang on long enough to get their most progressive economic and social asks. The evening of my departure, Macron will address the nation after a glaring stretch of silence. The analysts on the news say that his silence was to avoid fueling more anger of the gilets jaunes ahead of the larger demonstrations, which seems wise, although his suppression of the protesters speaks volumes. Already, his government has announced the suspension of the fuel taxes for at least six months. We are not told whether to expect more concessions. The French protesters have pledged to continue blocking the roads until they feel heard. As the protesters now suiting up in yellow vests in the Netherlands and Belgium will tell you, it was never just about the fuel taxes.
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