Comment writer Estelle Dragan shares her firsthand experiences of the recent riots taking place in France
When I was told that my year abroad would entail rich cultural immersion, I expected this to mean regular visits to the local bakery, eating frogs’ legs and indulging France’s finest wine and cheese. Little did I know that I would be witnessing France’s next historical landmark from my own bedroom balcony.
For weeks, my day-to-day routine has been completely disrupted by demonstrations against fuel tax rises, living costs and educational reforms. I am currently living in a nation that has quite literally been turned upside down by political discontent. No more sitting in French cafes admiring the beautiful views. La Ville Rose has unfortunately transformed into la ville en violence, fire and tear gas.
What began as a ‘gilet jaune’ fuel tax protest has grown into a wider anti-government sentiment. I have witnessed tensions rising as controlled protests have bred dangerous riots. Two weeks ago, I was denied entry to a restaurant as violence and fires broke out nearby. I wasn’t aware that the protests had even spread to Toulouse. It had been something that I felt completely out of touch with and that remained in the safe space of my television. Tear gas was something that was completely alien to me, so it came as a shock when I had to walk home with a scarf wrapped around my mouth and nose to protect myself from the burning sensation.
As the week went on, the metro became disrupted daily which meant that I was rarely able to get to university. Admittedly, it was quite nice to have a few days off without feeling guilty, especially as the protests seemed and felt relatively safe at this point. However, reality hit when I came out onto my bedroom balcony to find swarms of aggressive students gathered outside my flat, throwing roadwork signs, railings, bins (anything they could find) into huge piles and setting fire to them. Considering I live in a quiet area of Toulouse outside of the centre, this is the last thing I expected for a Tuesday evening. Riot police continuously threw tear gas towards our direction to deter the riots. It was completely manic. The fire brigade took a good half hour to arrive at the scene despite the flames getting out of hand. I had never seen smoke as black and thick as this. Tear gas exploded amongst the huge crowds of screaming students. I had never seen anything like it.
On the Saturday evening I returned to Toulouse after having been away for the night to find my neighbourhood completely destroyed. Bank, shop and estate agent windows and doors had been smashed up by the rioters that evening.
The French President responded to the violence on Monday 10th December, promising a minimum wage rise and tax concessions. Nevertheless, the chaos continues in light of this growing wave of discontent towards the French government. It seems that anyone who feels disillusioned with the system in some way, shape or form is jumping on the bandwagon and participating in what seems to have become a general revolutionary reaction. Arguably, France has not seen violence on this scale since the revolution of May 1968. Indeed, France is a republic that was founded in popular violence. All I can say is that I wouldn’t be able to come home from my year abroad feeling fully culturally immersed if I hadn’t witnessed French politics running to the streets for the sake of democracy.