Who would want to lead such an angry France?

17 April 2022

5:13 PM

17 April 2022

5:13 PM

It was a day of protest in Paris on Saturday and I made it to four of the five demonstrations. I missed Extinction Rebellion’s morning outing to the boulevard Strasbourg Saint-Denis in the centre of the city. Once there hundreds staged a sit-in and blocked traffic with bales of hay for most of the day. Like their Anglo-Saxon brethren in Britain, the protesters in Paris believe the end of the world is nigh and they are aggrieved that neither Marine Le Pen or Emmanuel Macron appear to share their pessimism.

There was little optimism on show at the Place de la Nation in the east of the capital where two rallies were being staged simultaneously. The larger of the two was against the extreme right and brought together several disparate organisations including the left-wing CGT union, SOS Racism and The Human Rights League of France. A few thousand were gathering in one of the boulevards leading off the Place. In the Place itself, congregating around the large bronze sculpture of Marianne, titled The Triumph of the Republic, were a couple of hundred Yellow Vests.

They were mostly middle-aged and, as one told me, working class men and women from the suburbs. I asked who he’d voted for in the first round. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, he replied. They all voted for him because ‘he’s the voice of the Yellow Vests’. What about the second round? He won’t be voting. In his eyes Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen are as bad as each other. Some of his fellow demonstrators brandished placards on which were written ‘Ni Macron, Ni Le Pen’ [Neither le Pen or Macron].

Suddenly there was a commotion, and we were engulfed in a billowing cloud of yellow smoke. Out of it emerged a group of men, mainly young, some hooded and masked, others carrying ‘Antifa’ flags. A few were clearly looking for trouble. They angrily accused the Yellow Vests of being fachos (fascists) and lepénistes.

They were met with a furious response.

One woman in a yellow vest jabbed a finger into the chest of a young man in a black hoodie and demanded to know where he had been for the last three years. ‘We’ve been on the street every weekend but I haven’t seen Antifa’.

There was a brief confrontation at the base of the memorial, a flurry of pushes and shoves, and then as quickly as they had appeared the Antifia mob dispersed. Most went off in the direction of the anti-extreme right demo (later in the day the police used tear gas to subdue some violent protestors) but a couple sat on the base of the monument sharing a beer. I asked if I could join them. They were disarmed by my accent and cheerfully admitted they couldn’t explain why they’d confronted the Yellow Vests. They just felt like it.

Neither had voted in the first round of the election and nor would they in the second. They oozed apathy. ‘Voting changes nothing in France,’ one of them said. ‘It’s been like that for years.’ I asked if he envisaged a lot of street protests later in the year whoever is president. He grinned and nodded.

From the Place de la Nation I took the metro a few stops south-west to Place d’Italie where there was another Yellow Vest protest. There weren’t many, a hundred at the most, but they too had voted for Mélenchon in the first round. One or two had ‘Frexit’ scrawled across their Vests and all raged about Macron and what they regarded as the rampant inequality of his France. Nevertheless, they told me, they won’t be voting for Le Pen next Sunday.

My final rally was in the 7th arrondissement, at a protest organised by Florian Philippot, Marine Le Pen’s deputy in 2017, who subsequently left the National Front to form his party of ‘Patriots’. Philippot became the figurehead of the resistance to Macron’s introduction to Covid passports and at the height of the protests last summer tens of thousands of people joined his marches each Saturday.

There were a few hundred gathered at the Place Fontenoy, many waving French flags or holding banners with ‘Liberty’ writ large. The atmosphere was different to the previous rallies, and so too the demographic. Music played out on the speaker system as groups of people lounged on the grass chatting and enjoying the warm sun. It was more middle-class. Several could easily have been passed for Macron supporters but they all told me they will be voting for Le Pen next week.

It was billed as an ‘anti-Macron’ march and those I spoke to listed a variety of reasons for their animosity: the Covid Passport, his Europhilia, what is being called the ‘McKinsey Affair’ but above all what they perceive as his arrogance. A man on stage with a microphone led them in a chant: ‘Macron, plus jamais”!’ Macron never again.

If the latest poll is accurate their wish will not materialise. Macron is ten points clear of Le Pen and on course for a second term. But what a challenge he will face to pacify his people. They are angry, with him and with each other.

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