Late Friday night, the air on the Champs-Elysees was thick with perfume: heady blends of lavender, rose and other enticing scents wafting out of chic boutiques and perfumeries aglitter with Christmas tinsel.
A day later, on what turned out to be yet another angry Saturday, Paris’ most famous boulevard simply reeked of tear gas. Clouds of the stuff hung in the air, burning throats but not silencing the sullen, rebellious crowds.
Noses dripping snot, eyes red and watering, demonstrators in their “look at me!” high-visibility fluorescent jackets spontaneously burst into song as they fled the choking gas, running past luxury boutiques boarded up with plywood boards hastily screwed or nailed into place overnight.
“To arms, citizens!” the yellow vests sang. “Form your battalions, let’s march!”
It was “The Marseillaise” — France’s national anthem.
Sang in joy in July, when France won soccer’s World Cup, the anthem was now an expression of defiance, spat out by protesters at phalanxes of heavy-geared riot police. Regularly, the officers broke ranks to toss tear gas grenades, fire rubber pellets and make arrests — nearly 1,000 of them, according to the country’s interior minister.
Paris police deployed tear gas and a water cannon as yellow-vested protesters took to the streets on Saturday. Those brief outbreaks of song from the protesters were among the few fleeting moments Saturday when the demonstrations resembled something coherent.
From all corners of the country, French protesters — the vast majority of them men — came by the thousands in trains, buses and cars. But once together in the capital, the most concrete thing they shared was simply fury.
Fury at President Emmanuel Macron. At taxes. At jobs that don’t pay the bills. At politicians they accuse of stuffing their own pockets. At the elite. At banks. At ‘the system.’ At life in general.
“Ras-le-bol” — which translates as “fed up” — was their common complaint.
But without leaders or clearly expressed goals, lacking shared slogans or even an agreed-upon route through Paris, the protesters mostly milled around, roaming the streets like a giant florescent caterpillar.
And that, for many, was just fine.
Simply by being in Paris, by being so visible in their vests, by bringing their grievances from France’s many pockets of neglect, they felt they were making their point: We’re here. We exist. We cannot, will not, be ignored any longer.
“They said that no one would come, so with my kids we said, ‘Right, we’ll go,’” said protester Romian Pascal.
The construction materials salesman, made redundant last year at 59, said he had never demonstrated in his life before this. He drove five hours from the west coast of France with his adult sons, Brice and Anthony.
“What we want is that the government be shaken up and not be governed by banks and fat cats,” he said. “The people must be heard.”
Initially, Saturday’s demonstrations in the French capital were peaceful. Police sealed off the presidential Elysee Palace, blocking surrounding streets with flat-bed trucks that unfurled giant metal barricades, forming a ring of steel around France’s seat of power.
Police opened gaps in the barriers when residents needed to pass. A surreal scene: Two men in full Scottish Highland dress, with kilts and sporrans, were allowed through to go to a wedding, they said.
The police layout had the effect of funneling demonstrators down usually busy but now eerily quiet streets toward the Champs-Elysees. To get to one of the most beautiful boulevards in the world, protesters passed through repeated police checks. Lines of officers searched bags and patted people down looking for weapons and gas masks. They let protesters keep their yellow vests.
Many had written slogans on the back, with demands as diverse as the protesters themselves: “Pacifist resistance,” ″Death to taxes,” ″Macron resign.”
As the crowd grew to thousands strong, the mood soured. Soon, the air was thick with gas. Eyes streaming, people ran. The better equipped pulled out eye drops to flush the chemicals out. They sputtered curses. And then they gathered again.
Over and over, the infernal cycle was repeated — gas, flee, gas, flee — that spoke of a France deeply divided.
In the mayhem, small groups of vandals in Paris smashed store fronts, set fire to cars, built and torched barricades, hurled whatever they could find at police and sprayed graffiti on store fronts. In a vandalized Starbucks store, a telephone rang, unanswered.
On the window of a shop selling expensive beds, a slogan sprayed in thick blue captured the mood of revolt:
“The plebs are going to sleep at the princes’ places,” it said. “Macron, we’re coming!”
Paris Under Siege: Tear Gas, Fury on the Champs-Elysees