Being a tourist in Paris during the Protests

Having just endured my second Saturday in a Paris beset by protests, I can assure you that the pictures on TV are generally far worse than the reality. As long as you avoid being caught in the middle of the riots, or between protestors and police, the biggest worries are unexpected detours to avoid the hot spots and extensive closures of popular attractions.

Last Saturday was the third in a row in which the yellow jackets- named after the bright yellow vest each motorist in France must carry in their car – protested against a proposed increase in gasoline taxes, incorporating a carbon levy in accordance with the Paris Climate Change Accord. I had met up with a friend the week before whose colleagues had accidentally been caught up in the riots and tear gassed (they are both okay), so I was not caught unawares. My son and I walked through the grounds of the Louvre, past the outdoor X-Mas market, towards our goal – the Orangerie Museum – which houses Monet’s Water Lillies. The first sign of anything amiss was the large contingent of police officers with plexiglass shields lining the edge of the Place de la Concorde. They were friendly enough and provided helpful directions to the museum, where we enjoyed the paintings.

As we left, towards the Champ Élysées, the silence was noticeable. There were no cars, no buses, nothing. The Cours-la-Reine, normally filled with screeching cars and cabs, was eerily quiet. All the pedestrians, mostly tourists, were being directed onto the footpaths that border the Seine River. At the Grand Palais, police prevented anyone with one appropriate identification from proceeding further, so we turned around and returned to the Louvre.

A deserted Cours-la-Reine

Heading towards the Place Vendome from the Louvre, we encountered a large group of yellow jackets walking towards the Champ Élysées. Intentionally or not, they were effectively blocking  traffic and preventing us from crossing the street, so we did the very Parisienne thing of sitting down on an outdoor patio and ordering a glass of wine. The waiter did ask if we preferred to drink inside, but when we declined, he asked us to pay for the drink immediately in case we had to leave abruptly.

Sipping wine with some yellow jackets in the background

We did not. The protesters kept walking by, some stopping near us. These ones were fairly jovial. Someone had an accordion and was playing a tune that, to us, sounded like Hava Nagila. Some of the protestors were singing – definitely not an anti-gas tax chant- and others were dancing. After half an hour, we were able to cross the streets and returned to our hotel with no further thought of the protests. It was only when we started getting worried emails from abroad that we learned that the protests had turned violent later in the day, with cars burning and graffiti defacing the Arc de Triomphe.

Despite the government cancelling the detested gas tax on Thursday, the protests scheduled for Saturday, December 8th proceeded. The yellow jacket movement morphed from an anti-tax demonstration to general dissatisfaction with the current government’s seeming antipathy towards the financial struggles of many French people. The day before, 89,000 security personnel had been put on alert, many being brought into Paris, to deal with the expected riots. A long list of attractions – 20 museums in total, including the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Orangerie Museum were closed. Clearly the authorities did not want hordes of tourists intermingling with the protestors.

We were staying near the Gare du Nord, completely untouched by any protesters. My friend, stymied in her plans to visit the Pompidou Center and the D’Orsay museum, walked north to Montmartre where a few museums were open. The only consequence of the riots on the Montmartre district that she noticed were larger than usual crowds, attracting many tourists who would otherwise have been at the closed museums.

I chose to do some errands, specifically heading to the giant BHV department store in the Marais on Rue de Rivoli. Walking towards it, the streets were devoid of any traffic save for police cars and taxis. Many restaurants were closed and as I approached the BHV, I saw that it too was closed for the day due to the extraordinary events.

Sign announcing closure at the BHV department store

As I left, I saw a group of yellow jackets being stopped by a number of heavily armed police. The police were requesting ID from the protestors and conducting gentle pat downs to ensure no weapons or gas masks were being carried. The chatter between the protesters and police was friendly – there was constant laughter and good natured bantering. I am not sure spontaneous pat-downs and ID checks would go over as well in Canada.

Police and protesters banter

Heading back north, near Strasbourg/St. Denis, large groups of protesters were marching and chanting, but everything seemed calm.

For dinner, we walked towards the Porte St. Martin to a trattoria for pasta and pizza. The streets were still fairly deserted, but  lots of pedestrians  were about. All the restaurants were open in the area. However, as we finished our dinner, protesters who seemed more animated than those earlier in the day, walked by the restaurant yelling things I couldn’t understand. Some bystanders outside got spooked, the restaurant owners decided they had had enough and hastily brought in the patio chairs and told the diners there would be no more service. We paid, went outside, looked around to ensure there were no protestors about (there were none) and walked quickly back to our hotel. There, in the hotel bar that was probably the busiest it had ever been, we joined the other hotel guests watching the riots on the large screen TV.

I decided to go to the BHV store again on Sunday morning. The streets were as I had come to expect in Paris – filled with cars and taxis honking. All the stores and restaurants were open. The line-ups at the Pompidou Centre with people taking advantage of free admission on the first Sunday of the month snaked for blocks. The BHV store was jammed with X-Mas shoppers. Paris was back to normal.