Paris is burning, streets are being barricaded, and police and protesters alike are being put in the hospital… but all that is happening a long way from Nice. The violent protests by the gilets jaunes, or “yellow vests,” happening in Paris are not happening in Nice, France’s fifth largest city and gateway to the Cote d’Azur. The first protests there have been much, much calmer.
Seeing Nice’s protests in person, and then seeing the fiery Parisian protests in the news, created quite the contrast. It also got me thinking about how much you can infer about a city based on the protests that occur within it.
Who are the gilets jaunes?
In brief, the gilets jaunes are a decentralized movement protesting Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies. They feel his policies are making life easier for the rich and harder for everyone else, especially so for those in more rural parts of France. When Macron announced a raise to the fuel tax in order to move France further away from fossil fuels, he pushed the gilets jaunes over the edge – the taxes and associated raises of commodity prices would have burst too many people’s budgets.
With day-to-day living becoming harder on their wallets, the gilets jaunes began taking to the streets. They wear yellow safety vests due to the high visibility of the color, and to the ease of access to them as all French drivers are required by law to have the vests in their cars.
If you want to know more: Kim Willsher wrote a good intro piece for The Guardian (here) to go with her coverage of the first nationwide protest on November 17, 2018 (here). Ryan Broderick has written about how the movement spread so quickly for Buzzfeed News (here).
As to why Nice’s protests didn’t turn violent, my theory is that Nice’s protests were so calm for two reason: geography and demographics.
Paris is both a teeming metropolis and the capital. People would travel to a city like that protest. Not so much for Nice, which is a beach city the sits along the Mediterranean, and whose outward growth stops north of the city at the foothills of French Alps. That makes it relatively isolated — no one is going to cross a sea or mountain range to protest fuel taxes.
The nearest cities in the region — Cannes, Antibes, and Villefranche-sur-Mer — are either big enough for their own protests, or too small to feed a critical mass of protestors into Nice.
This makes it very likely any protests in Nice are likely to be by locals who don’t want to damage their own city.
I was in Nice for the weekend protests of Nov. 17, Nov. 25, and Dec. 01. While I’m sure I missed many actions, and a whole lot of nuance, the protests I saw were all relatively small in size, which made it easy to get up-close looks at the people within them.
The people I saw protesting were not young firebrands. Many appeared to be young families or people over 40 years in age, and while most walked, others used wheelchairs, rode motorcycles, or were pushed in strollers.
They stopped car traffic along the Promenade des Anglais, the main East-West street that runs parallel to the beach, and blocked the downtown light rail line. These stoppages were never for too long at any one moment, but they were enough to make the stoppages felt, and the protestors’ unhappiness seen.
The sizes of the protests grew each week, as did the honks and whistles of support by passers by. Always calm and steady, once the protestors moved on, they left no lasting trace of having been there. Things went back to normal.
The protests became so normal, so quickly, that a very healthy segment of the OGC Nice “ultras” fans at the November 25th Nice-Lyons football game wore their vests at the stadium. Like the traffic stoppages, it came off as a way to be seen, to visually project their anger and frustration with Macron’s policies.
Young families, older people, sport fans, all expressing their anger and frustration in a calm but clear way… it would be easy to venture that Nice is a small city, fairly middle-class, more conservative than not, and with many active retirees in it.
Is there more than meets the eye here?
Of course these are all the observations of an outsider, so they could be way off the mark. They may also be outdated: the last I saw of the gilets jaunes of Nice indicated that the protests may be evolving.
Through most of November, a large “Christmas town” was being constructed in the plaza that connects Nice’s downtown shopping district, its Old Town, and the beach. At dusk on the first good weather evening that “Noel a Nice” was open, a large number of the protesters who had marched earlier in the day returned to plaza suddenly, making once last show of force.
Maybe it was the dusk lighting. Maybe it was knowing that they were protesting before a big event for the city. Maybe it was simply the sense of “they’re back!?”. Whatever it was, more so than the other protests I’d seen, this one felt like a statement: We’re here, we’re angry at where Macron is taking the country, and we’re not going away any time soon.
–Essay and photos by Dan Meade
Publication date: 12/12/018
Events: 11/17 – 12/01/2018