Fireworks and Tear Gas: Bastille Day with the Yellow Vests (Part 1)


By Will Holmes, Digital Travel Editor and Tom Stone, Third Year, Economics

The Croft Magazine // In Part 1 of Fireworks and Tear Gas our Digital Travel Editor Will Holmes and fellow Bristol student Tom Stone recount their experiences of the yellow vest protest movement that is shaking France in the build-up to Bastille day.

In the lead up to Bastille day, there was a tangible sense of social tension and revolutionary fervour in Paris. The battleground had been laid by the gilets noirs’s storming of the Panthéon on 12thJuly, a building seen as a symbol of France’s revolutionary values of “Liberty, equality and fraternity”. The gilets noirs are a group espoused from La Chapelle debout and Droit devant, who chose the burial ground of Voltaire and Rousseau (two great thinkers from the Enlightenment period) to demonstrate their anger at the arduous bureaucratic system that has left many protestors without official papers or housing.

The 700 protestors in the Panthéon left the French government in no doubt about the people’s anger: “on est des sans-papiers, des sans-visages, des sans-voix” [we are the undocumented, the faceless, the voiceless]. This symbolic protest outside where the ashes of the French revolutionaries Marat and Mirabeau were once held can be perceived as frustration over the continued failings of the French Republic, who appears to have abandoned its own revolutionary mantra of “Liberty, equality and fraternity”.

The French government and security forces have not been deaf to these protests. The gilets jaunes have been protesting and demonstrating since November, with the French President Emmanuel Macron being forced into announcing €10 billion of extra funding for the most “vulnerable” in French society and performing a U-turn on his policy to increase taxes on petrol. The President dubbed the “King of the Rich” by the opposition wanted to avoid further suffering on the Bastille day celebrations. To this end, 175 members of the gilets jaunes were questioned by the French police before the event, with many being detained. A clear police presence ran through the main streets of Paris: fleets of imposing police vans that dominated the side streets were commonplace.

Oppressive or protective? The CRS have received criticism for the way that they have handled past Gilets Jaunes protests. Epigram/ Tom Stone

On the eve of July 14th, fellow Bristol student Tom Stone and I spotted a woman hurling insults at the members of the French riot police (the “CRS”). She was shouting so vehemently that we felt we ought to ask what she was so angry about. She was complaining about the “malice” and “brutality” of the CRS and how France had turned into an oppressive police state, continuing to explain that she was a 64-year-old who had torn up her voting slip due to and recently become homeless in Paris. Like the gilets noirs, she felt forgotten, and explained her support for the yellow vests. Disillusioned with such a President, she went onto to detail the gilets jaunes plans to protest on Bastille day.

Shaken by her words, Tom and I headed home. However, the reality of the following day was yet to come.

Tom Stone recounts…

Intrigued by the old lady’s ominous warnings, we set out the next day with the aim of following the Bastille Day protests as they happened.

For the most part, though, the French capital remained relatively calm. Barring the heavy police presence, which was still patrolling the streets after the morning’s military parade, there were little sign of the protestors. It could have been any other day as far as we were concerned.

Little did we know how this would all change...

Featured Image credit: Epigram/Tom Stone

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Will Holmes

Digital Travel Editor | Former Editor of SPA award-winning publication La Civetta | Case Law Editor for The Student Lawyer | Digital Content Executive for LittleLaw