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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.