We’re heading for a bigger revolution than in 1789, say France’s rural ‘yellow vests’
Horns honked and a group of 50 “yellow vests” cheered as a massive lorry swung around the Gaillon roundabout in Normandy, the driver waving in support.
Neither President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to scrap the green fuel tax that sparked the nationwide protests, nor dire warnings of rioters marching on Paris to “smash and kill”, had dulled their determination to man their barricade.
“We’re ready to spend Christmas and New Year on this roundabout,” said Kevin Coget, 26, a “yellow vest” who had been “filtering” traffic every day since Nov 17. Seasonal decorations and the Father Christmas hats worn by several protesters around a fire in an oil drum proved his point.
It all seemed a far cry from the dramatic talk of riots in Paris today; instead, the mood was festive in this corner of rural France. A woman appeared carrying bags of biscuits. “We’re with you all the way,” she said.
“It’s incredible how much support we are getting,” said Mr Coget. People give food, drink and even money.
Albin Lucas, 28, a temporary worker in the building trade, said: “I’ve never seen such solidarity in my life. I’d lost faith in France. Now, I think that poor, middle-class and maybe even rich can come together.”
Yet not many have much to be cheerful about. Mr Coget lives with his partner Johanna Exposito, 25, a leisure centre cleaner, on a council estate.
Their fridge had just been stocked with essentials. “I’m paid on the 29th of each month and in the red by the 12th of the following one,” she said. “The overdraft pays for the food.”
Ms Exposito makes €800 (£717)) a month while her fiancé receives €1,100 in unemployment benefit. “It’s pretty soul-destroying that he gets more than me,” she sighed. “Lots of people in my entourage make much more than me without working due to welfare. I don’t think the system should be like that.”
She comes to the roundabout whenever possible: “We’re here to protest against all these taxes that make it impossible for us to live properly. We want better purchasing power and higher wages.”
The list of demands is confused but there is an overwhelming sense of social injustice. There is deep distrust of national media. The movement has relied heavily on local Facebook posts but Ms Exposito said she no longer trusted this, either, as some of her communications had been “censored”.
Yet the bonhomie sours at mention of the president. “He treats the little people like us badly,” said Mr Lucas.
Marie-pierre Nagorny, 70, a retired seamstress, said: “He’s arrogant. I can’t take his claims that we old people live better than the young and should have their pensions cut. I started work at 14.”
Several confessed to having voted for far-right Marine Le Pen in the last elections but said this movement was apolitical. Karl Toquard, a fairground worker in the group, is Left-wing.
Giving new meaning to grassroots democracy, the roundabout votes on actions to take. Last week, they agreed to besiege the local tax office – one of dozens attacked around the country.
Mr Toquard, 41, said the group welcomed Mr Macron’s concessions and had let more cars through “to show we, too, can cut some slack”. But these were not sufficient – he needed to raise the minimum wage and help poor pensioners, he added.
Despite the risks, Mr Lucas and Mr Coget said they would be going to Paris and would take protection against tear gas. Both said they didn’t condone violence. Nor did they rule it out.
“We’re heading for a revolution with even greater numbers than in 1789,” Mr Lucas said.
Police tackle students in film claiming to be of protests at Mantes-la-jolie