Postcards of the Past: Gilets Jaunes on Trial

The opening of the trial against people accused of damaging the Arc de Triomphe during Gilets Jaunes protests represents an emotive and symbolic process, as noted in recent press coverage of the event. But does the COVID context rewrite the echoes of the past which pervaded the protests?

At the time, in December 2018, national and international news focussed intently on the destruction of national symbols. Eyes were drawn to “a vandalised statue of the Marianne, a symbol of the French Republic, inside the Arc de Triomphe”.[1] The shattered face of the statue was a striking leader for many newspapers, though as RTL reminds us, this was not an image of Marianne as symbol of the Republic (an unlikely subject for tribute under King Louis-Philippe during the July Monarchy), but rather a plaster cast for the main frieze designed by Francois Rude depicting Le Départ des volontaires de 1792 (which itself remained largely undamaged).[2] Not necessarily Republican, in that case, but certainly a symbol of the nation.

An image of the bust in the interior of he Arc de Triomphe
[Pierre Poschadel, Interior of Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile. CC-BY-SA-3.0]

Beyond that, the Arc de Triomphe’s status as a monument commemorating those that died in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars as well as the site of the Tomb of the Unknown soldier amplify its symbolic importance to the national myth. The litany of historical references associated with these Paris demonstrations has been a consistent source of comment; as Abel Mestre noted in 2018 “everyone is looking for their own revolution.”[3] Back then, I tried to unpack some of those discussions on the Age of Revolutions blog, considering the Gilets Jaunes in the context of claims being made and comparisons being drawn. The tenor of those comparisons has continued, as Le Monde’s coverage of this trial only a few years later reminds us. Amidst the damage to these national monuments and the echoes of past conflicts, slogans like “MAI 68-DÉCEMBRE 2018” made explicit reference to more recent protests, and the presiding judge even referenced Montaigne as he related the damage (albeit perhaps not his most savoury quote).[4]

Amidst the “total hysteria” of the wider protests described by Le Figaro, there was some acknowledgement that defendants in the trial were not the “main culprits”, and it is worth noting that some were charged with relatively minor crimes:

“In the ransacked souvenir shop, Valentin N. ‘automatically’ picked up four postcards. ‘Two of the Arc de Triomphe and two of the Eiffel tower’ noted the judge. It is for this theft that he is being tried.”[5]

This symbolic trial, of a young man without previous criminal conviction accused of stealing postcards of the past amidst historic unrest, is unlikely to address wider tensions. Indeed, the trial arrives alongside a number of recent court actions related to the Gilets Jaunes protests (and especially the more violent episodes of their later sequence). In Nancy, a CRS officer was convicted of violence against a Gilet Jaune, highlighting the type of violence which marred the later stages of the protests. Likewise, the trial in Bordeaux of 16 people accused of being involved in violence collapsed, as it emerged the charges were based on anonymous tips.[6] As this legal reckoning develops, the protesters will continue to have their days in court.

A question I have been asked by the media is whether this trial in March 2021 marks a symbolic end point to the Gilets Jaunes movement. With that in mind, it is worth noting that the concessions wrought from Macron’s government did not solve the problems which had provoked the protests. The reduction of taxes, assurance of minimum levels of payment for retirees, and a spate of social measures worth up to 10 billion euros were all important measures, but perhaps the most symbolic was the huge listening project which started with 7-hour townhall meeting hosted by Macron. As all of this was being addressed, of course, the advent of COVID-19 has interrupted, defused or even scrambled the movement and state responses to it. There are some signs that sentiment remains enflamed, and the potential that protests against state authority related to lockdown measures could build on the platform of the Gilets Jaunes. The recent march in Annecy, or the clandestine Marseilles fete both showed symbolic moments of defiance against state authority with diffuse support (outside organized parties and political allegiances).[7] As in some of the fringes of the Gilets Jaunes, the Annecy march demonstrated where new age thinking, hints of conspiracism, and a rejection of state lockdown measures could combine (I wrote previously about where social media driven protests and the distrust of the state could garner conspiracist baggage ). As one observer quipped at that march, “they are the “gilets jaunes” of Covid”.[8]

These connections are further strengthened by a march from Montpellier to Paris by a group of Gilets Jaunes which began on 19th March. In another echo of past protests, I learned about the march from the newsletter of the Larzac APAL (the organization around planning created to support the struggle against the extensions of an army base on the Larzac plateau), which was appealing for volunteers to host the marchers along their route. Setting off from the central Place de la Comédie in Montpellier, the marchers are hoping to cover 22km per day on their trek to the capital. The announcement of the march declared: “Like the Paris Commune, 150 years ago, the Gilets Jaunes stand up against those who exploit and crush the people.”[9] Furthermore, it also linked ideas of lockdown scepticism and critiques of state power explicitly, with one marcher claiming they were marching to find out “the truth about this health crisis called ‘coronavirus’”.[10] Another participant in this “Grande Marche des Oubliés” put it more frankly:

“There are many who have been forgotten in the little villages : there are more suicides, there are totally isolated children… The people of France are dying with these freedom killing laws which only benefit the government.”[11]

Clearly the profusion of historic references do not preclude the influence of the present moment, nor has the COVID crisis erased the wider issues.

To go back to the trial in Paris, where the machers are planning to arrive on 1st May, one lawyer condemned the accused protesters by declaring that even the Communards had not attacked the Arc de Triomphe.[12] They did, however, turn it into a platform for a battery of cannon:

An image of the Arc de Triomphe during the Paris Commune, with cannons on top
[Image: 20 mai : les fédérés installent une batterie d’artillerie au sommet de l’Arc-de-Triomphe – Gravure de A. Provost pour Le Monde illustré du 27 mai 1871 – Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris.]

As Le Figaro noted, when the accused Valentin took to the roof of the Arc de Triomphe during the protests, it wasn’t to echo the Communards, but instead simply “for curiosity”.[13] It’s notable that on this landmark anniversary of the Paris Commune, along with rhetorical links to the Larzac struggle, May ’68, the Revolution, and all the rest, that this protest is still being spoken of in historic terms even as further COVID lockdowns seem likely. As I wrote in 2018:

“The profusion of historical references seek to borrow the progressive futures of the past, or to dismiss revolutionary cries of alarm as psychodramas (as Raymond Aron once did). Between the two, in revolution and stagnation, lies the reality of the structural reconfigurations being wrought on the French social compact, and only time will tell how this Macroniste conflict contextualizes France’s history itself.”[14]

These glimpses of the past pervade the language surrounding the trial. Yet, amidst the wider concerns of those who feel forgotten by the state, oppressed by lockdowns and curfews, or sidelined by national trajectories, the story of the 25-year-old Breton Valentin is somewhat instructive: the broader structural issues of inequality and alienation, the violence and destruction of that protest, and a hearty disdain for the central state may all combine to see a young man convicted of stealing postcards of the past.

[1] ‘The aftermath of the gilets jaunes riots in Paris – in pictures’, The Guardian, 02/12/2018.

[2] Aymeric Parthonnaud, ‘”Gilets jaunes” : la statue saccagée de l’Arc de Triomphe n’est pas une Marianne’, RTL, 03/12/18.

[3] Abel Mestre, ‘« Gilets jaunes » : chacun cherche sa révolution’, Le Monde, 09/12/2018.

[4] Pascal Robert-Diard, ‘Au procès du saccage de l’Arc de triomphe par des « gilets jaunes » : « En fait, j’ai réfléchi après avoir agi »’, Le Monde, 23/03/21.

[5] ‘Procès du saccage de l’Arc de Triomphe: «c’était l’hystérie totale», racontent les prévenus’, Le Figaro, 22/03/21.

[6] ‘Un CRS condamné à deux mois de prison avec sursis pour avoir matraqué un « gilet jaune » à Nancy en 2019’, Le Monde, 15/03/21; ‘Une enquête sur des « ultra-jaunes » présentés comme proches des black blocs annulée pour irrégularités’, Le Monde, 19/03/21.

[7] William Audureau, ‘« Les gens n’ont pas besoin de mesures sanitaires qui les déshumanisent » : l’ode à la joie des antirestrictions à Annecy’, Le Monde, 22/03/21 ; ‘Marseille : une fête clandestine en extérieur réunit des centaines de personnes’, RTL, 12/02/21.

[8] William Audureau, ‘« Les gens n’ont pas besoin de mesures sanitaires qui les déshumanisent » : l’ode à la joie des antirestrictions à Annecy’, Le Monde, 22/03/21

[9] ‘Départ de la “Grande Marche des Oubliés” à Montpellier : des Gilets Jaunes en route vers l’Assemblée nationale’, France3 Occitanie, 19/03/21.

[10] Départ de la “Grande Marche des Oubliés” à Montpellier : des Gilets Jaunes en route vers l’Assemblée nationale’, France3 Occitanie, 19/03/21.

[11]‘Départ de la “Grande Marche des Oubliés” à Montpellier : des Gilets Jaunes en route vers l’Assemblée nationale’, France3 Occitanie, 19/03/21.

[12] ‘”Gilets jaunes” : le procès du saccage de l’Arc de triomphe, lourd de symbole, s’ouvre lundi’, Europe1, 22/03/21.

[13] ‘Procès du saccage de l’Arc de Triomphe: «c’était l’hystérie totale», racontent les prévenus’, Le Figaro, 22/03/21.

[14] A. Smith, ‘The Gilets Jaunes Protest: A Grand Refusal In An Age Of Commuter Democracy’, Age of Revolutions, 13/12/2018.

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