Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard that France is currently experiencing a somewhat agitated social climate.
Everything started around a month ago with the “Gillet Jaunes” movement, mainly pacifically protesting against about fuel taxes. We were granted a few free trips to the Basque Country thanks to the protesters opening the tolls – thank you very much – but things have changed quite a bit since then: The movement has now been joined, not only by other similar social protests – most of them contesting against France’s current president, and taxes in general – but also by vandals, taking advantage of the situation to create chaos.
And this weekend has marked a clear increase in social tensions across the country.
Whilst we’re not qualified in any respect to comment on the political side of the events (however we are all in agreement it would be nice to pay less tax, in the most taxed country on the world) we couldn’t help but being shocked by the violence of the events which happened in the streets yesterday night, and in particular Bordeaux — a city a few hours up the road we’re very familiar with and fond of its cobbled streets and golden hues, playing host to some of our team members and dear friends.
Our good friend and filmmaker extraordinaire Doug Guillot, decided to spend his Saturday amongst the protesters to document this unique wave of social rebellion, and let’s say it’s quite far from anything we’ve been used to in the past.
We’ll leave you with some of his photos from the field, and a few words to put things in context.
Hi Doug! First, how would you explain the events that are happening in France at the moment to someone who’s on the other side of the world?
The social climate is currently very tense in France because a movement of social revolution has started rising since about a month now. A part of the French population is grouping themselves under the “Gilets Jaunes” (read “Yellow Vests” — the high-visibility yellow jackets that are required to be carried in every vehicle by French law, worn by the protesters) in order to protest against the social measures of the current government, which, implemented tax augmentations that are unfair according to them. This has led people to protest in ways that are completely different and more unpredictable than what we’ve been used to in the past.
Can you tell us a little bit about your Saturday?
Saturday, I woke up around 7.30 as I usually do. I turned the TV on, tuned in to a famous direct live broadcast information channel and scrolled my Twitter and Facebook feeds to get an idea of what the vibe was that day. The events of last week in Paris really motivated me to get in the streets in order to take photos the social protests from as close as I could.
I called my friends Leo and Vivien who were down to join me. I’m not used to social protests, and we thought it’d be good to be together in the streets, in order to cover our backs and watch over ourselves – considering how violent last week in Paris was.
We met a 2:30pm at my flat then joined the protesters. The vibe was quite chilled at first, with pretty much everything you’d expect a public protest to be like: chants of revolt, signs against the president…etc. We finally arrived at the end of the march, which was in front of Bordeaux’ city council, in the city centre. The vibe was still quite relaxed, and some of the protesters were even talking with the policemen. But that was only the start.
Then the tension quickly rose: we saw the first few projectiles being thrown at the CRS (French national police’s riot control forces) and people started running around everywhere. Most journalists around us put their helmets on, and a bottle of beer exploded right next to my feet. That’s when my friend and I understood the situation had just flipped over the edge.
We continued our quest, moving from one tense zone to another, always trying to be close to the action, whilst being as careful as we could, as we didn’t have helmets. I just had a snow-mask on and a balaclava to at least be protected from the teargas. Two hours in, we took a step back and understood the city entered a very violent phase, with fires starting everywhere, people jumping over barricades…etc. and it only got worst as night felt down. We then quickly found ourselves at the most violent contact point of the night – near Rue Ravez – where the CRSs threw “dispersion grenades”, a huge amount of teargas and went to direct contact with protesters. The protesters then ran into a construction site and used everything they had (wood, barriers, even a construction truck…) to create a barricade which they ignited later on. It was very impressive. I’m talking about 3-meter-high flames… We stayed around a little bit more following protesters and police forces then went back home, torn to pieces and faces full of teargas around 8pm.
What impact did the protests have on people’s everyday life in Bordeaux?
Last week was quite chilled to be honest. We only saw a few bins set on fire, projectiles being thrown at police, but nothing crazy in itself. This week was something else. The city council had closed most monuments/touristic attractions, and public transports were cancelled around sensitive areas where protests were supposed to happen. But nobody really expected that much violence in Bordeaux. The town is famous for being quite posh & chilled in general, so a lot of bars & restaurants ended up being taken off guard and had to quickly close their doors when things started to get out of hands. We saw some shop owners locking themselves with their customers inside their shop, and the situation was pretty chaotic. Most people didn’t expect things to go that much out of control.
Any point where things got pretty sketchy and you thought it was time to leave?
The sketchiest moment was when we all ended up in “Cours Pasteur”: Police forces started throwing teargas and protesters struck back with slabs of pavement. That was pretty gnarly and lasted quite a while. It was like an endless game of cat and mouse.. Then my friend Leo climbed over a barrier to overlook what was going on and told me a crazy amount of police were heading toward us. We quickly saw projectiles being thrown in the air and a couple of crazy explosions happened around us. The ground was moving and it was quite powerful. The CRSs had just used “dispersion grenades”. They’re forbidden in Europe, but France has to finish their stock and still use them from what we’ve heard… These things were really gnarly, even more when you add the crowd movement it created. I can tell you that you better not fall over at that moment.
Did law enforcement manage to keep the situation together in Bordeaux?
It’s hard to say… These guys have efficient equipment and strategies to control this type of event, but it seems like things got out of hand for a moment this weekend, as it was really a step up in violence compared to last week.
Again, this one social movement is such a unique beast that there’s always going to be collateral damages, even if the police manage to contain the protests.
How were people reacting to you taking photos in general?
I didn’t have a problem. Things were so chaotic that people didn’t pay attention. Although whenever I shot someone doing something illegal, I always try to sense how the person will react beforehand. Some protesters liked it on the other hand and were goofing around in front of my lens.
It’s the fourth week of protests in France – what do you feel next week will be like?
Talking about the spectacular protests in the streets, it seems like the situation is calming down, and what’s happening in Paris is always a good indicator: The crazy amount of police and their method of repression is mostly the cause of it. On the contrary, it feels like the social movement is getting stronger in my opinion. People seem really determined to rise up and contest the president’s policies. I’m not an expert in politics and social issues, so I can’t really tell. But Emmanuel Macron is supposed to address the issue himself for the first time this week, so we’ll so how it goes.