Keeping Calm and Carrying On: Life in Paris During Turbulent Times
As the Vice President of Communications for the American Women’s Group in Paris (AWG), I periodically post little pieces on our blog. To date, these have tended to be lighter in nature, focused almost entirely on tips for our members and new expats for adjusting to life in their new home. In light of recent protests, though, I posted a piece about some of the experiences of our members (including myself) which I thought might be of interest to others so sharing more widely. It is important to note that the activities of the past couple of weeks are complex — while the “gilet jaunes” movement has hit a chord nationwide in France and has been discussed internationally, it is almost impossible for those of us who have not grown up and through the political shifts over the past decade-plus to understand all of the tensions that are potentially simmering beneath the surface of it. But that is the topic that I am currently writing about for another post in the coming days. To that end, I welcome any comments or direct messages on any factors that you believe are important to keep in mind.
You can view the blog on the AGW directly here and including the text below.
There has been a lot of press coverage as of late, both domestically here in France and internationally, about the “gilet jaunes” activity the past couple of weekends. While most of the news outlets have splashed dramatic pictures across the headlines, the experience of most of us here in Paris has varied from disconcerting to inconvenient to amusing (and literally everything in between). Why? Because, to date, the areas impacted by the “manifestations” has been confined to known areas and people have planned accordingly.
There is no denying that the first weekend of demonstrations took many by surprise. Some friends mine were held up in blocked traffic along the “peripherique,” resulting in a day of cancelled plans. In chatting with them later that evening about the experience, they laughed that they at least had snacks as they waited for traffic to move again. Rebecca DeFraites, one of AWG’s former Presidents and previous contributor to this blog, found herself in for a much longer Saturday walk to and from the American Library than anticipated. In an email to friends and family about the experience, she wrote:
“It’s only about an hour walk — just on this side of the Eiffel Tower. It was colder than I expected but all went well until I got to the Assemblée Nationale metro stop. It was blocked by police in riot gear. And there was a large group of protesters coming towards them. My route was blocked…. (but) I was, however, able to detour around Napoleon’s tomb at Invalides and make it to the library in an hour and a half. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to get five hard-backed books. Given the uncertain transportation options, this was not a wise move. Neither the 63 nor the 87 buses were running due to les blocages. By the time I had walked another mile and made it to the train at Invalides, it was packed, and I was shoulder to shoulder with bewildered tourists and “gilets jaunes,” the protesters in their yellow fluorescent vests who were evidently through for the day. But me ‘n my books made it home in one piece. All is well.”
Another one of our AWG members had a little more adventurous (and unfortunate) Saturday when taking her seventy-seven year old mother, who was in town, on a tour of some of the major sites. As Rebecca further noted in her email:
“Her mom wished to see the Arc de Triomphe which, of course, marks the beginning of the Champs Elysees. Which is where the bulk of the protesters were. Which was a much worse idea than my deciding to sling five hard-backed books halfway across Paris. Her mother got slightly tear- gassed. While this would constitute an adventure in almost anyone’s book, I don’t think it was in their plans.”
Life in this picture-perfect city took a turn for the surreal when the manifestations of this past weekend took a turn for the worse. Tear gas floated past the windows of AWG’s President Sharon Nossiter, who lives just over a block from Place Madeleine. The sounds of sirens ran constant for nearly eight hours throughout the day as police and emergency services sought to respond to escalating activity. Unfortunately, some of our members who live near where the manifestations were staged saw first hand just how quickly things can turn and, if they do, how serious and scary things can become, warranting the need for enforcement. It goes without saying that watching the television news cover the burning and overturning of cars with response of tear gas and smoke bombs in your own neighborhood is disconcerting at best, now imagine seeing it first hand. One of our members in the impacted areas went out to see what was going on in her neighborhood after seeing news reports, only to quickly return a because the tear gas was too strong. Another one of our members, who was thankfully out of town for the weekend, returned on Sunday to find that their wrought-iron gates had been knocked down and people had entered the property and carted away a sculpture from the front steps. She lives on the ground floor so none of us can imagine how scary it would have been if she was home when this was going on. Walking through these neighborhoods the next day and finding broken display windows and vandalized ATMs is an on-going reminder of the potential for violence, a potential that hits a little too close to home for our members who live in these central areas.
Personally, I found myself chuckling while running errands in my own neighborhood of Villiers as the local French seemed unfazed by the sounds of tear gas bombs sounded every few minutes, echoing from the activity in Place Madeleine and Champs Elysees not even a twenty minute walk away. Of course they were unfazed, demonstrations, strikes, and protests are simply a fact of European life — although, admittedly, rarely do tensions get that high, at least not in Paris. I, then, laughed to myself about the nonchalance with which I, too, was taking in everything.
Why was I so calm? Was I becoming so French? No, that surely couldn’t be it. Afterall, I did cancel on plans I had that evening to join some Australian expat friends who were having dinner at that very moment on Saint Honore, choosing instead to snuggle in from the cold that evening rather than cross the known path of the manifestations just a few blocks away. It occurred to me that that was the reason. I, like my French neighbors sipping on their cafes and vin chaud in the brasserie on the corner, had known there would be activity that day. And, when it turned violent, I also knew where to avoid. I knew both because of the local news but because I had received a “Demonstration Alert” from the US Embassy the day before that included: (1) the expected areas to be impacted; (2) proposed actions to take; and (3) how to monitor the activity. I felt prepared. And because I felt prepared, I was able to stay calm.
As we look ahead at another weekend of manifestations, it is important to take in the lessons of the past couple of weekends. First, although Paris is known for its awe-inspiring beauty, it is a international political and economic capital. Whether due to the “gilets jaunes” or union activity or other political interests, demonstrations will happen and they will happen all throughout the city. And, when you have emotions running high in densely populated areas, things become unpredictable. It is one of the unfortunate trade-offs that you have to make when you choose to live in any of this size. But, you can be prepared. For the American expats, nationals, and visitors alike here in Paris (and abroad generally), one of the biggest tools that you have at your disposal is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Once you register with the program and set up your profile with country of residence and / or any trips that you will be taking, you will receive alerts about any security events and recommended actions. For our non-American friends, you will want to see if your embassy / consulate offers similar services (as most do). At the very least, if you hear of potential activity on the news, you can always check the US Embassy & Consulates in France alerts site. Armed with this information, you can then plan your day and travels accordingly. Manifestation in the Champs Elysees area? Yeah, definitely good to avoid that area for the day. Strike on the Place de la Concorde? Perhaps plan on taking the metro or a long walk from the Left to the Right Bank, or vice versa, rather than hopping in a taxi or Uber.
All of this is to say that, yes, these are turbulent times but the information is out there to help you plan; help you stay safe and avoid unintentionally walking into trouble; to help you keep calm and carry on.