Antibes’ Gilets Jaunes: Chaos, nuisance, or rien?

Manu sent me an alarming email this springtime.  “Les gilets jaunes font beaucoup de problèmes,” he wrote.  The yellow vests, the French demonstrators who had been dominating international newswires for months, were breaking everything, he said.  Anger infused his words as they blazed from my screen in Toronto.  “And this year there is less work.  Foreigners aren’t coming, so there’s less work for everyone.”

I’d asked.  Manu is a chef à domicile – he turns at-home dinners into parties – and we’ve hired him on occasion in Antibes, but booking early is always key.  Normally he offered us an available date or two in four months’ time.  This year his email mentioned four dates.  They weren’t the ones he could work.  They were the only four dates he was already booked. The rest were free.

man in yellow vest
They were all over the country, for better or worse.

French Lessons didn’t know what to expect when we arrived in France last month.  In April, around the time Manu and I were emailing, the US Government issued a French travel advisory due to unrest in Paris and other major cities.  It named looting and arson on one hand, and water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas on the other.  The TV news was equally charming.  The culprits were the gilets jaunes, those demonstrators who wore yellow safety vests and railed against taxes, reforms, government, rights, and life in general.  For all we knew, the streets of our beloved Antibes were rife with barbarism.

“Bonsoir!”  Christelle chirped as we flooded through immigration at Nice Airport around midnight.  “Comment ça va?  Your flight was bien passé?”

How our favourite, six-foot, redheaded French driver remained cheery at all hours of the day and night continued to beguile us.  She hauled our heavy bags into her truck – luggage, duffel bags, a dog crate, a guitar, and a cello – all while teetering on high heels and singing pleasantries to hovering airport personnel.  

Traffic flowed along the A8 motorway to Antibes.  No demonstrators swarmed the streets.  No barricades blocked our path.  Not a stitch of anything appeared broken.  

“Pas de gilets jaunes?” I asked, noting their absence and hoping to spur Christelle’s perspective.  

There’s nothing to worry about in the streets of Antibes.

“Non, non, pas vraiment,” she said, the cheerleader morphing into gentle counselor.  There was nothing to worry about, she said.  The demonstrators had been a nuisance for her driving, particularly where the motorway exited into Antibes, and only then on Saturdays.  A little something once happened in Nice – but in Antibes, non, we needn’t worry a jot. Antibes was totally calm.

It was just the counsel to calm our weary, travelling souls.

Shortly after settling into Antibes, I was sitting in the salon chair.  (There are priorities.)  Stefan was painting highlights into my hair, wrapping each horizontal layer in cling film (as they do) before proceeding up the next level. Our conversation had run the gamut, when I suppose my tone became more serious.  

“Donc, il faut demander . . .”  I began.

“I know what you’re going to ask me,” he said in French.

Apparently all Stefan’s international clients asked the same question.  The whole gilets jaunes issue was “rien,” he insisted.  Nothing.  He barely noticed it, and nothing changed in his business or his daily routine.  “La télévision always showed the worst three streets à Paris!”  he said.

What?  Manu was put out of business.  Christelle was inconvenienced.  Stefan blinked and the whole thing was gone.  The gilets jaunes hadn’t plunged Antibes into the Dark Ages, but their impact varied immensely depending who you talked to.

van in narrow street
We are used to infernal traffic and tight squeezes . . .

I sought out my American friend Judy, who has lived in Antibes for 15 years.  “They were simply annoying,” she said.  Her personal headline happened on a Saturday when she was driving along the A8 motorway and exited through the tollbooth at Antibes.

“Go through!  It’s free today!” a gilet jaune had said to her through her open car window.  Demonstrators had ripped the barrier arms from the tollbooths.

As Judy told me the story, she shook her head.  “I wanted to tell him, ‘You know who’s going to pay for all this, right?  The taxpayers, and that’s you!  And me!’” 

To make it worse, Judy would pay the toll, barrier arm or not:  She had a toll tag fixed to the inside of her windscreen.  That’s when the gilet jaune reached into her car and tried to wrestle the tag from the glass.

Antibes péage tollbooth from A8 motorway
. . . but it was a yellow-vested free-for-all one day at Antibes’ exit from the A8 motorway.

“I was a bit scared,” my friend confessed, “but I was suddenly excited about saving a euro fifty, and since the damage was already done, as a French taxpayer I thought I should get some savings now because I’d be paying for all the damage later.”  She worked with the yellow vest, trying to tear the tag from her windscreen – when she stopped short.  She was no fool.  She wouldn’t wreck her windscreen to save a buck fifty.

A couple days later, local friends Véro and Laurent popped in to collect their daughter from a sleepover. As we loitered in Bellevue’s entryway, Véro asked about this blog.  Over the years she has spurred on ideas, and she wondered what I was working on this summer.  I mentioned the gilets jaunes.

“C’est compliqué, ça,” she said.  Véro was keen that I understand the complicated issue properly. The real gilets jaunes were normal people who were demonstrating against taxes, reduced pensions, and the economy. Then the casseurs – the vandals – joined in, and that’s when everything got out of hand.

Laurent, in fact, had wandered into Nice for a demonstration – presumably the same protest that Christelle had mentioned so breezily on the night of our arrival.  “I wanted to check it out,” Laurent said, his tone unusually sober to underscore what was obvious to us:  He was not a casseur.  But what our friend saw upset him.  The crowd had included many elderly folks – proper protesters rather than rabble rousers – and yet police in Nice’s Place Garibaldi did more than maintain order. The verb Laurent used was soumettre – to subdue, or to submit.  The fallout has brought continuing controversy.

Compliqué, indeed. There went the breezy summertime.  Eventually I shared Judy’s story about the broken toll barriers with our local friends.  

“Et pourquoi pas?  Why not?” Véro said, returning some levity to our conversation as we chatted beside the front door.  “This is the most expensive part of the motorway in the whole of France!”  She laughed. “I should be a gilet jaune myself!”

Today a handful of demonstrators still turn up at the A8 motorway’s exit into Antibes.  They don their yellow vests and chat on the roadside while sipping cups of coffees.  

We’re back to soft journalism.

That was where I’d intended to conclude this post – until Véro put me right.  “Non!”  she laughed. “Those are simply employees of the mairie!”  Yellow safety vests were part of these government workers’ uniform.  They were probably sipping their coffees because the minute hand hadn’t yet reached 9:00!

It’s good to have local friends to keep you on the straight and narrow.

In any case, our local newspaper reflects the mood of the moment.  Returning to its usual heavy reporting, recent headlines have included the closure of a homeware store and the tip-top condition of Juan-les-Pins’ beaches for the summer holidays.

As for Chef Manu, we had to reschedule our date.  It seems, though, that the gilets jaunes are no longer scaring off his summertime clientele. He is now booked solid except for two dates, neither of which aligns with our calendar.

17 thoughts on “Antibes’ Gilets Jaunes: Chaos, nuisance, or rien?

  1. Thanks, Jemma, for the really insightful blog about France under the rule of Les Gilets Jaunes. From afar, France looks less attractive than your portrayal and its great to hear some observations from those on the ground.

    I hope you enjoy your summer!

  2. Hola Jemma you will have to put on a gilet jaune and protest in front of Manu’s house to get him on the dates you require his service. Great summer to all, 😘

  3. So glad to hear you are back in France and giving us all the reasons to think about making a trip to Antibes. Also to be grateful for not having to travel by air and annoyed with lines, TSA and crowds flocking to some of the most desirable parts of the world. Makes me feel blessed to have a vacation home just two and a half hours north of Boston where the merry maids made our small house close to spotless.
    Looking forward to hearing more about your highlights in the salon, and any pesky low lights, bikini shopping etc.

  4. Thanks for this delightful insider’s look at the problems in France. The world only sees what the press focusses on, and you’ve given us a new perspective. Thanks!

  5. Thank you for such an interesting article. We are in Antibes this week and loving every minute of our stay here.

  6. La meilleure analyse du mouvement des Gilets jaunes a été faite par le démographe français Hervé le Bras qui a étudié la répartition géographique du mouvement, son ancrage social, ses demandes et aussi ses contradictions.

    Voir son interview :

    Article publié dans le journal Sud-Ouest :

  7. My wife and I just got back from three months in St-Rémy-de-Provence, where we spend every spring. Like you, I was interested in asking all of our friends (and yes, the guy who cuts my hair) what they thought of the gilets jaunes. The opinions varied dramatically, from total support to total distain. My favorite comment was from a friend who pooh-poohed the idea of protests that took place every Saturday: “They say they want a revolution but then they only protest once a week. Don’t they know that revolution is a full-time job?”

    1. What a great comment by a colourful friend, Keith! Thanks for sharing it. I guess what my coiffeur said was true: We internationals really are all asking the same question. Simply to try to understand . . .

  8. Jemma
    I have been trying to keep up with the news of the demonstrations of the yellow vests when government keeps increasing taxes on the middle class whereby the middle class becomes smaller what you have described is the end result all the time unrest; it is an inconvenient lesson for all of us
    Thank you for your update

  9. Oui, c’est donc compliquer des fois! …especially when one lives overseas and parachutes in to attempt to place the pieces of the puzzle into some sort of image. (Flashbacks of our previous expat life). Thank you for the broader reporting…always best to get as many perspectives as possible. (Found the clip by Diane Louise very interesting). Good luck with booking a Chef! and enjoying Antibes as you know it:)

  10. As always, it’s great to get a perspective on the “news” we see. It’s frustrating to think that some folks have seen a decline in revenue, but happy that you are enjoying a quiet time on the Riviera.

    1. In March, 2006, we were in Paris, staying near Les Invalides. It was another period of unrest in Paris and we arrived back at our apartment just after the riots ended. We were two doors away from the last shop to be vandalized and looted, multiple overturned cars etc. However, calm had returned and the police were all sitting in their vans drinking wine and chatting. It was totally surreal, but weirdly, everything returned to normal and we continued on with our vacation.

  11. Luckily the only yellow jackets we have in Canada are a type of wasp and they have yet to show up so far this summer!! I am not sure which type is more annoying. Also glad to hear the cello made the trip!!

  12. Loved the explanation between the gilets jaunes et les casseurs. Hope you’re taking care of that entorse and feeling better. I can barely handle lugging my luggage in rubber soled shoes and can’t imagine heels. Those French women always have style no matter what the situation!

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