I have recently returned from a 24 day trip to France. A trip that I had been planning for over a year. The Australian Government was already recommending travellers to exercise a high degree of caution due to high threat of terrorist attacks before I paid for our flights, but we decided to go anyway, and to be mindful of our surroundings. Then in November 2018, we started seeing news of the protests in France by the Gilets Jaunes. While unsettling, I was hoping that the situation would have resolved itself by the time we made our appearance in January-February 2019. As the day of our departure grew closer, it was becoming evident that the demonstrations would be likely to continue throughout our time in France.
Sorting out the reality
It is difficult to make an assessment of reality by simply reading about these protests in the media, as they are always greatly sensationalised for the biggest impact on would be readers. The image that was being portrayed was that France was in the midst of a civil war, with cars on fire in every street. It was very alarming. I reached out to members of the travel community on Twitter as there are many people who either live in France or have recently travelled to France, and I asked them all the same question: Is it safe to go to France? One particularly enlightening piece of information that I received in response to my query, was that the protests usually only happen on the weekends, and mainly Saturdays. The same information was provided to us by our first apartment host when we were checking in. This helped to allay the apprehension I had been feeling about travelling to France. If the protests were happening on the weekends, we would adjust our plans to try and avoid areas where the protests were being held on those days.
An outsider looking in
As an outsider to the problems being protested to by the French citizens, I have only a basic understanding of the issues they are trying to change. While the protests are not directed at tourists, the repercussions of those protests certainly can impact the unsuspecting passer-by. My comments about the protests are purely from the perspective of the impact they had on my travels through France, and are in no way meant to diminish the seriousness of the issues or the hardships faced by the French people.
What we experienced
Most of the protests that we actually witnessed while we were in France were peaceful marches by people of all ages, carrying signs bearing various degrees of acerbic comments about their president. While we did not personally witness any acts of violence, for which I am extremely grateful, the cities we visited wore scars in evidence of the protests. Spray paint could be seen everywhere, indiscriminately defacing monuments, ticket vending machines, ATM’s, electric bicycles and scooters. Many shop fronts had boards replacing shattered glass, and a couple of burnt out shells of cars were still in the streets. Anti-riot police with crowd control barricades and machine guns were a sombre reminder of the seriousness of the situation.
Arriving in France, it was my extreme desire and plan to stay as far away from any disturbances as possible. Reciting the “plan” to my husband multiple times a day, so that he was on the same page – “if we see people in yellow vests, or hear police sirens, we turn around and walk in the opposite direction, ok?” To say I was anxious about being caught up in a protest is putting it mildly. Given my resolute intentions to avoid anything remotely resembling a protest, it’s actually quite comical when you think about how many times I ended up in the middle of one of them! In the end my husband was saying they were trying to recruit me. Ha ha. Very funny. Not.
You shall not pass…
My first encounter was being trapped on the wrong side of the riot control barricades in Place Bellcour in Lyon. We were in the metro station when we heard an announcement (in French, which we didn’t understand). Everyone started leaving the station after the announcement, so we promptly figured out that we’d better leave too. We went to the wrong exit, it was fermé, as the attendant told us. So we back-tracked and tried to find another exit. We ended up coming out of the station onto the edge of the protest march. Yikes. So we turned around and headed in the opposite direction, but the police had the place barricaded off so that the protestors couldn’t go up the main streets. I tried, unsuccessfully, to ask the policeman to let me through, but non madame, ce n’est pas possible! Argh. While I’m having a mild panic attack, my husband was taking photos. (I’m fairly sure that wasn’t part of “the plan”!) As soon as we found a way to escape the place, we walked back to our hotel room, to relax.
The next encounter with the gilets jaunes was when we arrived in Avignon. We stepped out of the train station into the middle of a yellow vests protest march. I almost stopped breathing. I quickly took off in any direction trying to get away from them as fast as possible. Laughing at me, my husband followed along, finally asking what my big hurry was. “I don’t want to be tear-gassed” was my reply. He looked around at the peaceful protest march, and then back at me. “I don’t think that’s going to happen” was the casual reply. The public transport appeared to be cancelled, so we had to catch a taxi to our hotel, which was an unplanned expense.
Our plans of a day trip to the pont du guard had to be changed due to a strike day. So we caught the train to Nîmes instead, which is a beautiful city! After our tour of the colosseum, we started to hear police sirens going off. Following “the plan”, we walked away from the sirens to explore a more peaceful area of the city. However, when the time came to go home, we needed to get back to the station. You can guess where the gilets jaunes were protesting then can’t you. As you can see, the protest wasn’t bothering the locals who were still sitting on the sidewalk of a café enjoying their day.
No public transport during protests
Arriving in Bordeaux, we went looking for the public transport area near the station. Once we found it, we were greeted with announcements telling us that all the public transport going past the Palais de Justice had been cancelled. Of course, that was the direction we were heading! So we dragged our luggage back to the taxi rank again, and took a taxi to the hotel. We tried to go for an evening walk, but the police had areas nearby barricaded off. Deciding that dinner in a nice quiet restaurant was more enjoyable than facing the police barricades again, we found our way into the back streets and sat down for a meal.
Eerily empty streets in Paris
Our final day in Paris was a Saturday, and thankfully we had already organised a taxi to take us to the airport. I didn’t want to gamble with public transport again on a Saturday. In the morning we were walking around in the Tuileries gardens, and went to the end to look at the Place de la Concorde. The police had the whole place barricaded off, and there were no cars to be seen anywhere. It was quite surreal. In the distance we saw the gilets jaunes gathering on the Champs Elysees.
Making a holiday anyway
Despite my misgivings about going to Paris in the midst of this time of unrest, we actually had a nice time. There were a few minor inconveniences and changes to our plans, but we still managed to see most of the items on our agenda. It is important to always be aware of your surroundings when you are travelling and know what is going on. Avoid any protests because even if they start peacefully, it only takes someone to make a bad decision, and then the situation could escalate. The last thing you need to experience on your holiday is an encounter with a crowd control tear gas canister!
Acknowledgement: all photos of police & people protesting were taken by my husband – I was focused on walking in the opposite direction at the time…