Not quite a ghost town, but when I emerged from the metro at Saint-Germain-des-Prés at noon, central Paris was eerily calm for a Saturday in the festive season. I once lived in this district and December was always a nightmare for shoppers and tourists.
But not today. Louis Vuitton was shut and boarded, so, too, Swarovski and a couple of banks and most cafes. I walked towards the Seine and on the Quai Voltaire I encountered my first riot police. They had a dozen gilets jaunes against the wall, frisking them in a courteous manner.
Crossing the Pont des Arts I spotted a Father Christmas in a yellow vest walking briskly along the river path. Under the bridge and out of sight of the police, Santa Claus stripped. I watched as he stuffed his outfit into his haversack and then strolled out wearing black jeans and a black hooded top. He was in his late twenties, clean cut, sporting a short back and sides; there was a touch of the military about his bearing as I tailed him towards the Louvre.
I lost him among the throng of gilets streaming west down the rue, towards Place de la Concorde. Blocking our route before the Jardin des Tuileries was a cordon of riot police. One of them signaled for me to approach. I opened my coat and spread my arms as he patted me down. I tried to lighten the tension by telling him he had nothing to fear from an Englishman. The mask that covered the lower half of his face wrinkled as he smiled. We wished each other a ‘good afternoon’ and I continued down the Rue de Rivoli.
Here, too, most of the shops were shuttered and closed, including WHSmith. On one boarded-up shop front someone had daubed in black paint, ‘Pas de Noel pour les Bourges’. [No Christmas for the bourgeois].
It was impossible to access Place de la Concorde. An high iron fence had been erected and several police vans sealed off the road, so we all swung right and headed towards the Place de la Madeleine. There was nothing exceptional about the ambiance; the people wearing yellow vests were diverse in age, sex, class and color. We could have been off to a music festival.
As we approached the Place de la Madeleine the slogans on the boarded-up shops proliferated: ‘Looting=Social Justice’, ‘Neither Patrie [Patriotism] or Patron [boss]’, ‘Banksters go to Hell’, ‘Neither Macron, nor Marine [Le Pen]’, ‘Vive Le Vandalisme’ and on the shuttered entrance to the Chanel shop, ‘A perfume of Victory’.
Another line of police vans barred the entrance to Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, home to President Macron (and the British Embassy). Close by, a group of smiling gilets jaunes had established a command post and were distributing leaflets to anyone interested. I took one. It was entitled ‘Let’s Put an end to Poverty’ and it called on the proletariat to abolish wages, state and money. ‘We should have only one wish,’ concluded the tract, ‘the death of commodity’.
For an hour or so I hung around the Place de la Madeleine, making small talk with one or two gilets jaunes, most of whom seemed to be here to socialize as much as to demonstrate. Their jackets carried a range of messages, mostly about social justice and inequality; I saw a couple emblazoned with the slogan: ‘Don’t touch our cops’.
Then the atmosphere began to change. From the direction of Opera came a crowd of three or four hundred, few of whom were wearing yellow. Many had face masks, hoods or hats pulled down low. A few sported gas masks and moved with a testosterone strut. Other sang, danced and drunk, chanting to the president what he should do and where he should go.
This throng didn’t stay long at Madeleine, probably recognizing they lacked the firepower to break through onto Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Instead they continued west towards the Champs-Élysées, easy to find because of the helicopters overhead and the noise of the detonations. Reasoning that discretion is the better part of valor, I didn’t follow, not after I’d just seen the latest news from the Champs-Élysées describing the arrests, injuries and arson.
By 6pm, the French media was saying that although the violence hadn’t been on the same scale as the previous Saturday, nearly 750 people had been arrested in Paris, and 55 injured, including three policemen and two journalists.
I came through unscathed, thanks to my yellow streak.