PARIS—French police and gendarmes kept hordes of "yellow vest" protesters and vandals away from the Arc de Triomphe on Saturday, and drove them straight into my neighborhood here.
Cars and motor scooters burned on the street behind my place, and the street in front, and near my favorite café. It was shuttered this Saturday evening at a time when the mild temperatures might have seen dozens of people at the sidewalk tables. Tear gas floated in the air, singeing the eyes of people inside nearby apartments.
Everywhere there were “gilets jaunes,” the shiny vests required in all vehicles for safety's sake if you’ve got a breakdown by the side of the road. But among the protesters wearing them it was hard to tell who were the decent people coming to Paris to defend what they see as their rights to cheaper fuel, lower taxes and greater social services, and who were the “casseurs,” the revved-up men, and some women, attracted by chaos and ever ready to create it.
It would be easier to tell if the “good people” intervened more often to stop the vandals. “Not their job,” said a doctor in my neighborhood. No. That was up to the hard-pressed police who had brought their shields and batons and flash bombs and tear gas to the corner of my block.
The casseurs (the word literally means people who break things) were playing a game with the authorities – and with authority – which is a very old game indeed in this country, and they were so caught up in it that they gave little thought to the many potential casualties, including children.
Near the Champs Élysées in the early evening, as I was wiping tear gas from my own eyes, I saw a man coming toward me pushing a stroller and trying to pull a small suitcase behind him. A tourist perhaps? I didn’t want to slow him down to ask. I couldn't believe there was a baby in that stroller, but there was. The man was pressing a wet rag around the toddler’s nose and eyes to try to protect them. The look on the man’s face was at once one of terror and resignation.
Similar scenes of needless danger and stupid destruction were playing out around the city. And in the middle of it all, utterly unnoticed by anyone I saw or talked to here, President Donald Trump decided to chime in with a tweet fanning the flames of discontent.
Having spent most of the day in the embattled streets of the French capital, I can say with confidence that I did not hear a single person so much as mention Trump's name, much less chant, “We Want Trump.”
He does have a point, to be sure, when he ascribes some of the initial discontent to increased fuel taxes and automobile inspections meant to reduce greenhouse gasses—measures rescinded several days ago with little effect on the crowds or the violence seen in Paris on Saturday.
But what once were fairly focused demands have multiplied faster than bright ideas over a bottle of pastis, including not only the downfall of President Emmanuel Macron, who has had a tin ear for public sentiment these last few months, but the dismantling of public institutions and indeed the state.
To a considerable extent, this is an uprising of small-town and rural France against the wealthy cities, especially Paris. But it’s not a revolution, and the guillotine won’t be taken out of mothballs. Unlike the revolutionary France of yore, today some 80 percent of the French live in the cities the casseurs have been attacking. It‘s also worth noting that almost all the violence Saturday focused on the Right Bank centers of wealth and power, while the venue of the redoubtable student uprising in 1968 was the Left Bank around the Sorbonne. Over there on Saturday, people were still enjoying their lunches at the Cafe Flore.
Clearly the crazies have come out with a vengeance, and there’s no one to talk to with enough control to call a truce. (Note that a trucker’s strike that two powerful unions called for on Sunday was canceled after the government talked to their leaders and met their basic demands. Nothing like that is possible with the yellow vests.)
For a year-and-a-half after Macron was elected and his newly formed “movement” En Marche! scored a massive majority in the National Assembly, none of his opponents were able to get any traction. Past calls for major strikes and demonstrations fell flat. But when this leaderless, formless yellow vest phenomenon started taking off three weeks ago, others began to pile on.
The media are still interviewing people in yellow about their grievances. But that is now a waste of time.
Here's one dirty secret of the gilets jaunes “movement”: the violence is the key to their nihilistic “success.” It has become both the medium and the message.
And here's another dirty—and even more dangerous—secret: the jihadist groups who terrorized France and Europe just three years ago with their attacks at the Bataclan concert venue and sidewalk cafés are watching closely what's happening here now.
The nightmare of any urban police force, as I learned when I wrote a book about the NYPD, is the moment when social unrest overwhelms the ability of the cops to respond, and the jihadists or other committed terrorists move in to exploit the situation.
The French intelligence services are monitoring closely the public communications and very likely the private ones as well of the jihadist remnants of Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State and their acolytes in France.
So I asked Gilles Kepel, one of the most prominent French authorities on jihadists and author of the French best-seller Sortir du Chaos (Beyond Chaos) what he thought the chances were jihadi terrorists would take advantage of the yellow vest unrest.
"It is not completely outside the scope of possibility," said Kepel. On jihadist internet TV the leaders and propagandists of violent jihad are on the one hand cheering the casseurs, even drawing analogies to the "Arab Spring" uprisings that toppled regimes in North Africa. They fit all this into the core ideology of jihadist Abu Musab al-Suri, who predicted the collapse of Western civilization and told believers, "When state power falters they should ‘build up their enclaves,’" as Kepel put it. "But for the time being they’re telling their fellows in France not to move."
Kepel also noted that amid the fulminating demands and conspiracy theories propagated amid the yellow vest furor, the far-right and some jihadist propaganda coincide in their efforts to fuel the unrest by blaming Jews. The "proof"? Many of the ATMs in Paris — in addition to those smashed by the vandals — would not give money. Ergo, it's somehow all a Jewish plot to screw the poor.
Oh, and Bloomberg News also reports there is a Russian hand in the unrest, which could be true, but probably is not that relevant to what actually happens on the street.
So, okay, Gilles, what are the remnant jihadists – the really terrifying terrorists – telling their people in France that might keep them quiet?
"They tell them ‘the police will make you their first target and the yellow vests will not protect you.’"
So the terrorists of 2015 and 2016 remain dormant for the moment. But maybe that was just for a day.
On Monday, President Macron is due to address the nation. Whether he can restore peace and confidence is a question that will not be answered quickly, but by then the burned-out hulks of automobiles may be dragged away from my neighborhood.
In the evening, it rained hard, and the yellow vests seemed to melt away. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced in the early evening that the situation had been controlled except for "a few points of tension" and thanked 120,000 police, gendarmes and firefighters deployed throughout the country while 1,385 people had been detained nationwide, mostly in Paris, plus 974 arrested pending further investigation.
The good news: nobody was killed on Saturday, and far fewer were injured than the black Saturday before.
At about 8:00 p.mm., traffic resumed on the Champs Élysées which, despite the many boarded up windows from Cartier to Tiffany, Louis Vuitton to The Disney Store, somehow retained its holiday beauty.
One thing the terrorism of three years ago did teach us: Paris is a city that comes back fast.