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Here was a movement that defied description. The day before the first protest, it still seemed vague. Without a leader and without any backing from trade unions, the call had gone out for November 17 via social media, and it took off like wildfire. The high-visibility Yellow Vest – le gilet jaune – was featured on countless posts and pages. It was time to discover these new demonstrators.

Day 1, later known as Act I, was November 17, 2018, I could feel that something unusual was happening. Protestors in Paris included corporate managers, young women, family groups, bikers and more. At first glance, they appeared to have nothing in common, and their slogans had never been heard in any demonstrations I had covered. They were rebelling. Some tackled drivers whose patience had been tried when the traffic was blocked. The tension was palpable. While out reporting, I got news that a female Yellow Vest demonstrator had died when a woman attempted to drive through a Yellow Vest roadblock. That was the first turning point for the movement. And more were to come.

At barricades and roadblocks, different demands came together, and what may have appeared to be a vague sense of exasperation quickly turned into widespread discontent. Every week Yellow Vest protestors came up with more demands in a bid to improve their life, and the different moves by the government did nothing to calm their anger. There were men and women who were determined, and they persisted, traveling across France, often sharing cars to come to Paris. Messages on smartphones gave the latest news on meeting points where they would find fellow demonstrators.

Saturday after Saturday it went on and on, but what had originally been peaceful marches degenerated into scenes of uncontrollable violence. In the clouds of teargas it was difficult to see who was causing the violence and where they were. Some protestors became radical after their protective gear was confiscated by police and they were then caught in attacks. Others stopped marching for fear of being injured.

Act 4 in Paris, on December 8, was the worst. Early in the day the stand-off had started between police and demonstrators; there were extremists, including black block groups and violent elements, who made their way into the march on the Champs-Elysées. They were determined to wreak havoc, to attack and burn whatever they found. Quite clearly, journalists were not welcome. When insulted, we had to remain stoically silent, while also dodging the occasional surprise blow from a baton; some journalists were even caught by flash balls. Some Yellow Vest protestors were pacifists and tried to stop stores being looted and ransacked, only to be physically attacked by men set on violence. By then, I was on my own, witnessing staggering scenes of citizens pitted one against the other.

Passions rose; there was mutual animosity and contempt between protesters and police. Every weekend, my gear had got better as I attempted to blend into the scenery so as not to miss a good shot. I was used to doing stories on rough neighborhoods and crime. I saw each demonstration as a new story to report on. The photos selected here are a small fraction of the full story.
Éric Hadj

Eric Hadj

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