I write from Paris and from the family home of my boyfriend, where the television runs at a near constant and where, whenever it hums out news or special emissions regarding the Gilets Jaunes, everyone slowly trickles in from wherever they’ve been in the house to watch.
From my village in Ireland I laughed at the protests. I understood them to be about the fuel tax, which is something that I agree with. How stupid to protest about something designed to assist in the country reaching it’s own climate goals. Here are people who don’t know what is good for them; who have reacted against a decision made in their best long term interests.
The first broadcast that played in the house here was met with silence but not condemnation. When I said that the tax was a good thing, my boyfriend’s feelings about the situation became clear and it became clear how they differed to my own. As a Parisian for whom the realities of tax hikes in any area resonate especially viscerally, my boyfriend is represented to a large extent by the protestors who are not only demonstrating their anger against the fuel tax but also their frustration and disillusionment with the system of taxation in general.
I thought that I was a long way removed from understanding this but this is not the case. In 2017 I spent several weeks in Paris over the summer and when I cast my mind back to those days it is well within my capability to comprehend how the Gilets Jaunes movement has come cracking to the surface.
I came to Paris in 2017 with the very cinematic notion of the place. Paris. City of love and light and beauty, where every corner is worthy of a thousand Instagram pictures and where I could write indulge myself in hours of doing whatever I loved on the balcony of some impossibly tiny flat, a la Gene Kelly in An American in Paris.
My boyfriend and I stayed where he grew up: a suburb in the northern Paris, not far from Charles de Gaulle airport. It is not a particularly beautiful place and a million miles from our preconceived notions of a suburb and of Paris. Every morning he would drop me to the metro on his way to work and I would stand in the heat waiting for the train among countless others on their way to work.
On the trains there was little space and once in Paris the noise and congestion made it feel less than picturesque. On the afternoons when my boyfriend would collect me from the centre or we’d head in there together, we would pass intersections with tents and cardboard boxes pilled high on the grass verges, the homeless immigrants begging in among the lines of stopped traffic. The outskirts of Paris are filled with such sights, a far cry from what we think of when we think of the city of lights or love or whatever we term it.
I’d spend my days wandering around the touristic Paris and then my evenings in the suburbs and it became very clear to me, very quickly, the disconnect between the city on show and the city that the average worker works to uphold but seems to play no part in. The expensive accommodation, the cost of living – it appears to price out average Parisians while they are expected to feel represented by politicians who live in these areas.
There was also a simmering of anger everywhere that I went in the city. Sitting in traffic on the way home one evening, my boyfriend and I waited two hours before we could even inch forward. Imagine, he said to me, if you had to do this every day. I couldn’t. A note that I have made for myself in my 2017 journal is that I think Paris will be he site of the next war. Whatever there was about what I saw or felt, even as an outsider, it was enough for me to understand there was a not so deeply submerged feeling of anger and discontent in Paris.
In some way my initial misunderstanding of the Gilets Jaunes movement is exactly the problem that those in power have failed to anticipate. It is perhaps the same problem that exists between knowing what will help to arrest the climate change catastrophe and implementing those measures. Distance breads disconnection. It is incredible the extent to which this can blind us to how people seemingly just like us will react to something that others feel is best for us.