VILLENEUVE-LA-GARENNE, France (AP) — With a yellow safety vest tied to her backpack, Mathilde Pouzet set out for Paris on Nov. 17 for her first protest with a grassroots movement that is now shaking France. She returned for the next two, braving tear gas and dodging violence. Three weeks later, she was blockading a fuel depot of gas giant Total, until dozens of police in riot gear cleared out her small group.
Now, Pouzet, a 43-year-old aide in a public nursery, and a handful of fellow protesters from her working class town north of Paris are plotting their next blockade.
“We have our strategy, but we’re not army chiefs,” said Pouzet. “We’re novices.”
Pouzet, who is raising two children alone and can barely make ends meet, is among the rank-and-file French, including retirees, passionately protesting against a government they say has forgotten the people while pandering to the rich.
The movement took off in November with blockades at strategic crossroads around the nation following a fuel tax hike that is part of President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to wean the nation off fossil fuels.
The movement is dubbed “yellow vests” for the fluorescent safety vests that are required by law in each car and that protesters often don.
The original protests may have been fairly low-key at the start. Now, following an ugly turn that has led to two violent weekends in the heart of Paris and four people dying, the French state is in the midst of its most serious periods of civil unrest in decades.
French authorities trying to grapple with the restive citizenry have stressed the right to protest — while preparing extraordinary security measures ahead of Saturday’s demonstrations, including putting armored vehicles on Paris streets.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, citing intelligence reports, said Friday that “seditious” individuals are expected to meld into the crowds and made clear all would be done to prevent a repeat of the recent destruction and violence.
On Wednesday night, the government had withdrawn plans for the January fuel tax hike in a bid to appease restive citizens — three days before a feared fourth protest in the French capital. But by then, the movement had ballooned and radicalized and demands have multiplied.
The concession was widely seen as too little too late. Now France is bracing for more violence this weekend. The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre museum and countless shops are to stay closed Saturday as security is tightened.
Pouzet has neither a car nor a driver’s license. But she did have a moment of epiphany.
“I recognized myself, like, yes, the girl who had been forgotten, the girl who struggles every day and who fights to try to have a minimum, the minimum to survive,” she said.
She said she decided to stop wearing a yellow vest because the movement is no longer about cars. Instead, she calls herself “an angry French woman.”
Pouzet is far from destitute. She has had a steady job for 14 years caring for children at a public nursery in a nearby town, with the statute of civil servant.
She lives in a white stucco semi-detached house in a working class town north of Paris. But she says she has around 200 euros (under $230) per month to feed her family and pay for surprise expenses. The rest of her monthly pay check of 1,750 euros, after social charges are deducted, goes to paying mortgage, house bills, health insurance for her and her two children, 12 and 18, plus transport cards, school supplies and telephones. She took out a bank loan to pay France’s annual “habitation tax.”
“I was like a lot of people, resigned,” she said, “telling myself listen to those around you, fall into line, shut your mouth and follow and grin and bear it.”
For her, the growing protest movement meant “the world was opening its eyes, coming out of a lethargy” and “I saw I wasn’t alone.”
During a visit to her home, she recounted, often tearfully, her path to becoming a protester, first alone then in a local group. Like many others, it began on social networks like Facebook. Groups formed and other networks were engaged. Two women arrived to plot the next action.
It is unclear how many people are in the movement, or support it. But the speed at which actions and demands are multiplying has swept Pouzet away, and weakened the government.
“This crisis is deep and it’s not just economic. It’s moral,” Pouzet contended.
The phenomenon began incubating in mid-October, apparently spurred on in part by a video that went viral, posted by a woman in Brittany, Jaclin Mouraud. In it, she gives Macron a tongue-lashing for piling new taxes and restrictions on cars, needed for work — while slashing a wealth tax.
“Where is France headed, Monsieur Macron?” Mouraud asks.
For Pouzet, the beleaguered Macron “detonated” the crisis, but it was long in the making, starting with a gradual loss of solidarity in French society.
“It’s the poorest giving to the richest … We have the impression of being modern-day slaves,” she said.
The diversity of the movement, with self-appointed spokespeople but no real leaders, has created a conundrum for the government, which has no one with whom to negotiate. Infighting within the movement that apparently is attracting radicals on the right and left has multiplied sources of potential danger.
Pouzet says she opposes the violence, but considers it inevitable if change is to come.
“The French people have reached saturation point. The state strangles us more and more, year after year,” she said.
Now, “people are waking up…. we’re waking up together so let’s go.”
Milos Krivokapic contributed from Gennevilliers, France.
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