PARIS — After months of crippling protests by “yellow vest” demonstrators, thousands of people sporting red scarves marched through Paris on Sunday in favor of the French Republic and against the violence that has become a weekly feature of public life in this country.
The French street has always been a crucial stage for political theater, and Sunday’s demonstration — billed as the “Republican March of Liberties” — was the long-awaited intervention in a story line that, until now, had featured just one side of a national conversation on social inequality.
Approximately 10,500 people marched in Paris on Sunday, according to police figures. That was more than twice the number that donned yellow vests in the capital the day before, when about 4,000 marched in Paris and 69,000 marched nationwide, according to the Interior Ministry.
The yellow vests — or “gilets jaunes” in French — have dominated the headlines since mid-November, when a march to protest rising taxes on diesel fuel became a grass-roots movement against the government of President Emmanuel Macron. For weeks, demonstrators wearing the high-visibility vests have ransacked wealthy areas of Paris and other French cities, burning cars, breaking glass and demanding to be seen.
On Sunday, a diverse crowd — many in “foulards rouges,” or red scarves, their own attempt at branding — gathered to decry the violent scenes the movement has inspired, including anti-Semitic words and gestures, physical attacks on French journalists and even an attempt to break into a government building, which led to the evacuation of a government minister.
Although Sunday’s crowd urged respect for the French authorities, there have also been a number of documented instances of police brutality against protesters.
As recently as Saturday, during the “eleventh act” of the yellow vest protest, Jérôme Rodrigues, one of the movement’s prominent figures, was injured in the eye by what he claims was a “flash ball” launcher, which French police have been known to use for firing rubber bullets. Rodrigues was hospitalized, and his lawyer told France’s BFM television that he will be “disabled for life.”
Some of those who marched Sunday voiced their agreement with some of the yellow vests’ disparate demands, mostly the ones related to lowering the cost of living for society’s most vulnerable members and demanding that Macron’s government abandon policies that favor the wealthy.
“On the gilets jaunes, their complaints are legitimate. But this has to be done in a peaceful way,” said Christine Gaillard, 55, a nurse from Angoulême in southwestern France.
She said she was terrified by the images she has seen since the protest movement began. “I am an immigrant. I left my country for a place where there is peace,” she said. “If there is no more peace here, where will we go? It scares the immigrants more than it does the French.”
But some lifelong Parisians shared her sentiments. “There are some of their complaints that I agree with — higher salaries, for instance. I believe everyone has the right to a good life,” said Olivette Lourenço, 66, a retiree who braved an icy January rain to attend Sunday’s march.
“To be honest with you, this is the first time in my life I’ve been to a protest,” she said. “I just don’t agree with the hooligans who come out in the streets and attack Paris, the most beautiful city on earth.
“We’re told the hooligans are the margins [of the movement], but when I see the gilets jaunes who are present and who watch with admiration what the others do, that’s what disgusts me,” she said.
Just as the yellow vest protests have harked back to the unrest of 1968, there were faint echoes Sunday of the massive counterprotest in late May of that year, when hundreds of thousands march through Paris to defend the government of Charles de Gaulle and the stability of the republic.
If the numbers Sunday were not nearly that high — and those who marched not necessarily in favor of Macron, who remains deeply unpopular — the prevailing sentiment was that the yellow vests were not exclusively entitled to speak for society. With chants like “We, too, are the people,” Sunday’s crowd challenged a frequent yellow vest assertion.
“The gilets jaunes claim to be ‘the people,’ ” said Hélène Chopard-Lallier, 74, a Parisian in the crowd. “But the French people encompasses all, all social classes and communities. It’s everyone.”