I have been covering the movement of the Yellow Vests since November 17, 2018, either for the weekly newspaper La Vie, the daily Le Monde or the Mediapart website. I chose to tell their story from a roundabout, always the same one, at La Patte d’Oie in Saint-Gervais la Forêt, at the entry to Blois, capital of Loir-et-Cher county, situated on the banks of the lower River Loire in central France.
In the course of weeks, and of requests by the local prefecture to clear out or dismantle their sheds, the movement has evolved. The Yellow Vests of La Patte d’Oie have become more mobile, mingling with their colleagues from Vendôme, Romorantin or Orléans for peaceful marches in the city centres. Some, angry at images broadcast on social media of Yellow Vests injured by tear gas grenades or riot police flash-ball shots, known in France as LBD40, have joined marches in Tours or Paris, sometimes wanting things to unravel. Others have abandoned the movement, either because their demands have been met, they feel powerless, or because of disputes, health issues or personal reasons. The most steadfast of the Blois Yellow Vests are a core of 40 people; a diverse group of precariously-employed women, temporary workers, truck drivers and pensioners. Some are not in any sort of social distress but know a colleague on a miserly disability allowance or a friend who’s an underpaid caregiver.
It is in this environment that I too evolve as a journalist. One Saturday, during a demonstration, an old lady, who I didn’t know and who had never spoken to me, put out a rumour that I was in contact with the authorities, that I systematically forwarded my photos to the police. I had to go and see her and answer her bluntly. “You should wear a press armband at any time” she shouted. From time to time, I meet with the photographer from the Nouvelle République, a regional newspaper. He has already been insulted for photographing a child wearing a vest. He refused to delete his images and a big argument broke out. On another occasion, about 15 Yellow Vests arrived at the local Blois editorial office of the Nouvelle République to get one short pamphlet published, of the type circulating on Facebook. In vain.
However, the Nouvelle République has not yet divorced from the Yellow Vests of La Patte d’Oie who weigh up the media’s importance in relaying their movement’s message. When the county’s Yellow Vests organised a picnic in the gardens of the splendid Château de Chambord, the place where President Macron had privately celebrated his fortieth birthday, they hoped these media would show up en masse. And they weren’t disappointed.
There to interview them were Agence France Presse, France Info radio station, TF1, Russia Today, but also BFM TV, France’s leading continuous news channel, whose journalists are often targeted by Yellow Vests. Some were beaten in Rouen and Paris and insulted in Toulouse and Montpellier. BFM journalists even went on strike on January 7, because of the Yellow Vests. On that Saturday in Chambord, last month, a female journalist and a camerawoman of the channel were escorted by two bodyguards. A sad picture, but in the end, everything went well. “Too well,” Vincent, an employee of an Amazon warehouse and one of the organisers, would say because the footage that was broadcast was in his view very short.
Manu is retired. He worked 42 years as a truck driver. He gets a good pension but says he has friends who cannot even afford supplementary health insurance. He goes every day, for at least an hour, to the roundabout of La Patte d’Oie. He has been distributing leaflets to motorists since the filtering of traffic was banned… which still means traffic is slowed down considerably. Manu criticises BFM TV or RMC Radio of the same group, for giving a platform to editorial writers or presenters hostile to the movement. “When I hear Jean Jacques Bourdin, I know right away who he is gunning for, it is so obvious.” He also criticises the channel for broadcasting scenes of violence in Paris on a loop “without the context, without the sequence before, which would have made it possible to understand why this former French boxing champion punched the police officer”.
Over time I have seen retired Yellow Vests become Facebook addicts, exchanging tons of information between them, sometimes inaccurate or unverifiable, that the professional media are naturally reluctant to broadcast. These same Yellow Vests remain faithful to the 8pm television news, an old-fashioned institution that usually gathers around 5 million viewers on TF1 and 4.5 million on France 2. They cannot help noting important differences in the way their mobilisation is covered online or TV.
Because they denounce the high cost of living, tax injustice and low salaries, these grassroots protesters know the price of lettuce, petrol, bread or kilowatt hour to the nearest cent. Put another way, the tally of mobilisations, number of leaflets distributed and number of cars that have benefitted from their “free motorway tolls” operations acquire vital importance. Should a TV news presenter forget to mention that the mobilisation figures come from the Ministry of the Interior, then the whole TV station is doomed to disgrace.
“Halfwits, fascist followers, hateful populists, degenerate rednecks”. I often tell myself it’s fortunate the overwhelming majority of Yellow Vests do not have Twitter accounts, a favourite network for French journalists. They would be appalled by the virulence tinged with contempt or fear expressed towards them by some; generally Parisian, well-off and intellectually progressive colleagues. They do not accept that the movement continues and cannot stand being kept outside their comfort zone any longer. The Yellow Vests I observe are stubborn and many of their claims are confused, but the majority of them – as stressed in this recent article in Le Monde – have no trust in far-right leader Marine Le Pen at all… and are still not violent. Some, who otherwise volunteer at the local Emmaüs shop (similar to Oxfam charity shop) in Saint-Denis sur Loire, or who coach in sports associations, are clinging to a new solidarity made possible by the Yellow Vests. They maintain good relations with the police and local intelligence services, who recently asked them to record the licence plates of motorists who insult them or lift the middle finger as they pass by, a phenomenon that has become a daily occurrence.