If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about France since moving here, it’s that they love a good old protest. The French air of defiance has been present ever since I first came here in September when, fortunately for me, student protests and the resulting damage to campus meant that my term started a month later than expected. This resulted in me enjoying a gloriously extended summer for my entire first month of living here- vive la France I say.
I suppose I knew that it was only a matter of time before something else kicked off, but I never really anticipated how close it would be to my own doorstep. So I thought I’d do a slightly unusual year abroad update, explaining why Toulouse has been pretty manic this past week.
If you’ve been watching the news you will probably have seen something about the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests. But what are all these high-vis vested warriors piping up about? Well, in a nutshell, they’re protesting against a rise in fuel tax on petrol and diesel, a tax that was intended to pave France’s way to green energy usage. Not only this, but following proposed changes to college/university systems and the introduction of fees for international students, Toulouse’s student population have joined in with the riots. All in all, it’s safe to say that there are a whole lot of angry people in France right now.
The protests began in Paris in November but last weekend marked the first outbreak in Toulouse, which, naturally, was the weekend that my parents had planned to visit me here, typical. We spent the majority of the weekend in the town centre so we saw quite a lot of what was happening and let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like the delicious smells of food at the Christmas markets mixed with essence of teargas…delightful.
With the markets closing up early, the high street shutting up shop and the streets being littered with riot police, there was an atmosphere of unease in Toulouse that I hadn’t experienced before. It wasn’t until walked to a restaurant that we had booked that we first saw what had been happening. Met with a cloud of tear gas, we found the entire street closed up, littered with smashed glass and lined with scorched patches where protesters had started fires…off to a different restaurant it was then!
Things continued like this until Tuesday when the intensity of the protests increased. Unfortunately for me, I start university at 8:30 on a Tuesday. Naturally, protestors have to make sure they get a good night’s sleep in before waking up for a long, hard day of wreaking havoc, so I can only assume they were having a nice little lie in when I got my first metro to university. It wasn’t until 10:30 that we all got the dreaded notification telling us that all the metro lines, tram lines and the bus network had stopped running because of the riots. Now, for someone who lives a 45 minute walk away from uni, you can imagine that this wasn’t exactly music to my ears. Six hours later when it was time to go home, all the networks were still down, so I had no choice but to face the trek. Little did I know what I was coming home to.
I must admit that I can’t help but feel responsible for what happened in my street, as according to the laws of luck and jinxing, it was actually entirely my fault. Speaking to my friend at uni, I had said how annoying it was that all metro stops were closed including mine because, quote-me: ‘I can GUARANTEE that there’s nothing going on in Patte d’Oie’. HA, talk about famous last words.
Upon getting home, I saw that the protests were quite literally on my doorstep, with police vans on one side of the street, and a crowd on the other. Watching from my balcony, I took some videos of what happened and I think they speak for themselves…
So yeah, that was my pretty unusual Tuesday evening. Safe to say it was a far cry from the tranquil image of my street shown in the cover photo of this post.
Amongst all this protesting, the one thing that I have found particularly bizarre is the way that life is going on fairly normally around the chaos. Of course, things have been closing, and the public transport situation is a NIGHTMARE. But over the course of this week, I’ve seen have so many people walking on the streets around the protests almost as if nothing was happening, I even saw people cycling along my street right through the middle of everything, hardly batting an eyelid. Perhaps it’s all part and parcel of the French culture? At any rate, I suppose life has to go on as normal for the most part, because it doesn’t look like the protests are stopping any time soon.
Today a vote was being held at my university to decide whether the students are going to strike again or not, and with the French track record, it looks like I’m probably going to be on course for another month long holiday. I suppose I can’t complain about that.