(All photos by Garrett Wilson)
By Ella Steinhilber
Saturday after Saturday since last November, France has seen protesters take to the streets in demonstrations, often violent, that were initially aimed at rising fuel prices and which have morphed into a broader movement of economic and social discontent.
International news coverage of the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) movement — named after the vests that motorists in France are required to have in their vehicles in case of an emergency — has focused on violent protests in Paris, especially on the destruction of shops, banks, automobiles, restaurants and cafés in swanky neighborhoods of the capital.
But demonstrators have taken to the streets in many other cities, including Rennes in Brittany where I am studying this year.
Rennes is a college town with a charming center of half-timbered buildings and narrow cobblestone streets. On a Saturday morning in late January, gilets jaunes demonstrators from all over Brittany gathered to protest in the center of the region’s capital city.
Thousands of demonstrators wearing fluorescent yellow vests and brandishing signs denouncing President Emmanuel Macron chanted as they walked through the streets. It was the first time the protesters had amassed in one place in the region. Those from Rennes started marching on the outskirts of the city and met up in the city center with those from elsewhere in Brittany.
The reunion was an astonishing event to witness.
Riot police with shields quickly lined up, backed by large vans. Protesters created blockades as they faced off against the police. There was a lot of shouting, and some demonstrators threw smoke grenades. The confrontation escalated as police fired tear gas.
After the protests subsided, we saw broken windows, graffiti scrawled on banks and smoking embers.
It was clear that the gilets jaunes, which lack strong leadership, were disorganized. Still, the movement continues, week after week, to put pressure on Macron’s administration as political parties ready for European Parliament elections in May.
Groups on both the far right and far left are hoping to tap into the gilets jaunes movement, although polls show it’s not clear which parties will benefit most from the discontent.
It’s also not clear just how long the protests will continue, but the gilet jaunes have vowed to continue pushing for change.
Ella Steinhilber is spending her last year of high school in France with School Year Abroad and will finish her high school studies at the University School of Nashville. She loves courses ranging from Math to History, and at university plans to pursue interdisciplinary studies with a global emphasis. Ella plays soccer and lacrosse, and enjoys mentoring underprivileged kids. She co-founded a youth organization that promotes gun law reform in Tennessee.
Garrett Wilson is in his second year of high school, studying at School Year Abroad‘s program in Rennes, France. He plans to return to Allendale Columbia School in Rochester, New York, next year. Outside of school, he is a commercial film editor, producing content for major brands and agencies around the world. He enjoys photography and film-making.