Paris (France) – Holding signs that read “What about the poor?” and chanting “Justice for all,” France’s yellow vest protesters, ignoring the displays of unity by the French political class in the wake of the Notre Dame fire, marched through the streets of Paris and other cities on Saturday, vowing to persevere in what they called “Ultimatum 2”.
“These [protests] are very important for social justice,” said Jean-Baptiste Redde at the Saturday protest on Republique Square in central Paris.
“We have to help the poor, the disabled people, those who don’t have roofs to live under. It’s important to hold on.”
Hundreds were arrested and dozens injured as violence broke out between demonstrators and police.
The French capital quickly became the epicentre of Saturday’s violence, with 9 000 protesters reported in Paris alone, according to the French Ministry of the Interior, and police sealed off entire sections of the city.
While the protests started out peacefully, almost with a carnival-like atmosphere, violence erupted as thousands of demonstrators approached the Place de la Republique. People threw rocks at police who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.
It was the twenty-third demonstration by the loosely organised, disparate movement that is mainly united in its resentment over the lack of economic equality in France and displeasure with President Emmanuel Macron, whom many see as a “president of the rich”.
The grassroots movement that started on social media has proven to be one of the biggest tests of Macron’s presidency, with protesters refusing to let this week’s fire at Notre Dame pause their demonstrations, even as the president and French political parties put aside politics and halted campaigning for the upcoming European Parliament elections.
In fact, in some ways, the fire on Monday inflamed some protesters because of the hundreds of millions of euros raised immediately afterwards to restore the 850-year-old Notre Dame.
Some of that money was pledged by French billionaires such as French luxury group Kering’s CEO Francois-Henri Pinault and LVMH head Bernard Arnault as well as companies such as French oil giant Total.
“I would like us to get back to reality,” said Ingrid Levavasseur, one of the informal leaders of the movement, speaking on French BFM TV last week.
Levavasseur said it was important to criticise “the inertia of large companies and [billionaires] in the face of social misery as they display their ability to raise a crazy amount of money in a single night for Notre Dame”.
Her comments and others were widely shared on social media. Many agreed.
“If they are able to give tens of millions to rebuild Notre Dame, then they should stop telling us that there is no money to counter social inequality,” Philippe Martinez, head of France’s CGT workers union, told French radio last week.
The sentiment was reflected on the streets of Paris on Saturday. “Billions should also be given to the poor, to help the environment, to promote biodiversity,” said Redde holding a sign that read, “Millions for Notre Dame – and what about the poor?”
“But Macron and this government only want to help the rich, so we can’t stop.”
The fire at Notre Dame, which is revered by all French people – Catholics, Muslims and Jews – as part of France’s cultural and historical legacy, set off a national outpouring of grief.
As a result, the anger at the donations set off a backlash within the government and among the public.
“It is a pointless debate,” said Culture Minister Franck Riester, interviewed on RMC radio.
“To say, ‘there’s too much money for Notre Dame and there is need elsewhere’ – of course, there is need elsewhere for healthcare, the fight against climate change. But Notre Dame is not only a collection of old stones. It’s a part of our identity.”
France’s Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner was more pointed.
“The rioters have not been visibly moved by what happened at Notre Dame,” he said angrily, shortly before the ministry announced that France would deploy 60 000 police officers on Saturday and prevent any protesters from getting near Notre Dame and the Champs-Elysees where, in March, they set fire to a bank, smashed the front of a renowned restaurant, and looted stores.
It’s difficult to say the protests are no longer legitimate because of the Notre Dame fire. Life goes on. And so do the yellow vests.
— Al Jazeera