I just returned from a week and a half in Paris, and I have to say that Charles Dickens had it right in his opening to “A Tale of Two Cities.” He wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” Dickens was writing about the time of the French Revolution. The parallels to our own time are hard to ignore.
There’s beauty and history at every turn. But it’s a living city, and even its venerable monuments are subject to the winds of history. I was thrilled to arrive on Le Bus Direct from the airport and find the Arc de Triomphe right across the street. I was even more thrilled to locate the affordable apartment I had rented a block and a half away.
Our first day, a Friday, was foggy. We went to the Concorde and had a look at the art in the Orangerie.
On Saturday, many metro stations in central Paris were closed due to protests. No matter! We walked. We used our Museum Passes to pop into the Louvre and the Orsay, just making short stops to get our bearings.
In the evening, we strolled through the Christmas Market in the Tuileries. By about 8 pm, we started walking home. That didn’t work. Streets around the Champs Elysees were cordoned off, but rows of cheerful, confident police gave people directions while front-loaders moved in behind them to clean up the debris from the day’s protests. We treated ourselves to a taxi back to our apartment. By the next morning, everything was back to normal. Paris was Paris.
The following Saturday was our last full day in Paris. It was December 1. We knew there would be some protests, but we hoped we could pretty much ignore them as we had the week before. Little did we know…
The day began with peaceful marchers on the Champs Elysees. This banner said, more or less, “Macron, stop treating as though we are stupid.” What began a few weeks earlier as a protest against high fuel prices had become a movement against the government. It appears that a large majority is angry about a government that heavily favors the rich over the poor.
“Storming of the Bastille,” Jean-Pierre Houël, Public Domain
Protests in France are a way of life, but this one feels like it could be historic. We all know what happened after about a thousand angry men overran a prison in Paris on July 14, 1789.
Early in the day on December 1, demonstrators broke through police lines and gathered around the flame of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe (I kept a live stream going on TV). Ominously, many of them wore gas masks, and many faces were covered. Soon they were chased out. All day, a game of cat-and-mouse went on. Police would rush to one location, and protestors would be overturning cars, smashing shop windows, and building barricades in another.
All this seemed leaderless. On the streets, people in gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) were constantly on their smartphones and gathering in small groups to decide where to go next. It was hard to tell who was violent and who was peaceful. At one point when we ventured out toward a local cafe, the five women above warned us to change direction. They were walking away from an incident, but they also had gas masks.
Things were peaceful in the small branch of Starbucks around the corner from our apartment. In fact, hardly anybody was there. People in yellow jackets were allowed in, but they took off their jackets and the French flags that many had draped around their shoulders. They might have been asked to take off the jackets and flags–it’s hard to know what’s going on in a foreign language, and my rudimentary French was not serving me very well in the fast-moving events.
We tried walking out of the protest area.
Maybe we could just enjoy local shop windows?
But it soon became impossible to go outside without catching choking whiffs of tear gas and hearing the boom of stun grenades. On TV, we could see protesters daring the police to attack, and being knocked over by water cannons.
Early in the afternoon, we bought some groceries and decided to hole up in our apartment until we left Paris in the morning. We felt safe because police had completely evacuated the Place Charles de Gaulle, the huge traffic circle that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe. Police vans by the dozen were parked on a nearby street, and we were on a smaller street, in an apartment inside a courtyard with a locked door to the quiet little rue de l’Etoile outside.
We settled in and turned on live TV. Suddenly, the entire Place Charles de Gaulle was overrun again. Small bands of police were retreating behind their shields, obviously in danger of being surrounded.
Each officer had his hand on another officer’s shoulder and they slowly retreated in orderly lines. I half expected somebody to shout “Shield Wall!” But the police retreated to their nearby vans. The plaza filled with a swirling mass of humanity. Then, men in yellow jackets suddenly appeared ON TOP OF the Arc de Triomphe.
Later, we saw footage showing them breaking into the monument, looting, and destroying statues.
We surrendered. If the French can’t defend the Arc de Triomphe, anything can happen. We packed our stuff and reserved a room at the airport hotel, not sure we could even get there. A few doors down our little street, we walked into a Best Western Hotel and asked the front desk clerk to call a taxi. She refused! She said no taxi would even drive into the area. She practically threw us out.
We walked around the corner and into a fancier hotel, where people seemed to be coming and going (and paying rates way above our price range). The very kind concierge called us a taxi and made sure it arrived. With great relief, we piled in.
The driver spoke very good English and played soft jazz. After a few minutes, he had driven us out of the destruction. He said he was against the violence, but the protest was necessary because the government was not listening to the people. Yup, I get that now. (News reports say that 70 to 80% of the people support the current protests). The Sheraton at CDG was a haven of tranquility and people spoke excellent English. It was fully booked.
I kept the TV live stream on and looked at it once in awhile all night. It appeared that the violence and destruction were pretty much over by about 3 in the morning. Cleanup was beginning, and President Macron, who had been out of the country meeting other world leaders, was flying home to survey the damage. Cleanup began. I’m afraid the real cleanup will take a long time.
Paris is always the same, and always different. We’ll be back, hopefully in more peaceful times.