Zoe Willis tells us about her visit to Montpellier and how she navigated the city during the gilet jaunes protest
On Saturday 16th November, the French protest movement gilets jaunes celebrated one year of protests. Ever since the first demonstration in November 2018, protestors have been demonstrating outside symbolic governmental sites in both major and minor cities, notably in Paris. It began in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed reforms which would cut taxes for the rich by 70% and increase fuel prices. However, the protests still continued when Macron scrapped the tax rise for fuel: this movement is now primarily driven by a more general desire to give power to the people than in protest of any specific reform.
When I arrived on a day trip to Montpellier on Saturday 16th November, one of the first things I heard about while with my friends was the gilets jaunes protests and we slowly saw the responses to it over the city. Our tram into the centre of town stopped in advance of the central station because of the demonstrations, and several public gardens with monuments were shut and locked. While looking for a restaurant to eat before getting our coach back to Aix-en-Provence, we saw a group of people in Place de la Comédie chanting and becoming rowdy at 6.30 pm. They set off a couple of fireworks into the sky, which provoked a round of applause from onlookers, and soon dispersed. Although I was feeling slightly uneasy, we chose to eat at a restaurant in this square as no other was yet open and we had a deadline to make.
Our meal over with time still to spare, we ordered dessert. Within five minutes, everything changed. The gilets jaunes, who had their jackets tucked into their pockets due to the cold, returned, still rowdy. More fireworks were set off, this time across the square rather than into the sky; a tear gas canister went off outside Monoprix – a prominent French shop. Just as the Maître D ordered the other waiters to get everyone in the restaurant to pay and leave, a lit firework scattered across the front of the outside eating area, and a tear gas canister was slipped under the tented sides. We were all told to run, and went panicking into the restaurant interior, where the waiters shut the doors and guarded the entrance.
Even though we all made it in within a couple of minutes, the tear gas was already very strong and made it hard to breathe. We watched as the riot police marched outside. Having seen in the news the scale of the gilets jaunes riots in Paris earlier in the year – fires, defacing monuments, clashes with the police – I called my family to let them know where I was, what was going on, and to tell them I love them in case the protestors became more violent and something happened. It was a nightmarish experience.
Thankfully the only people who came past the inside restaurant door were other frightened members of the public, whom the waiters let into our safe space. One of them at the bar offered water to us to help ease the effects of the tear gas.
Once the gas cleared and the waiters couldn’t see any people nearby, they let everyone go and pointed us in the direction away from the main square – but not before they made us pay for our dinner!
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