The sign said La Farga de Reynes, the Reynes Forge It was a small Catalan village on the French side of the border. We had just left two friends in the Musée d’Art Moderne in Cerêt, with its seventy odd pieces contributed by Picasso, and half of the exhibition rooms closed for repairs. Nothing much had changed since we visited four years previously and found half the museum shut. Now we were driving into the mountains, heading towards Amélie-les-Bains for a brief R & R from Culture. We planned to return and pick them up.
Rounding a bend, I saw the bridge ahead of us was hung with yellow bunting. Then I spotted them. “Look”, I said, “Gilets Jaunes”. We felt like those bird-watchers who spot a migrant yellow-hammer in a Suffolk field. There they were, as seen on TV, by the roadside in their high-viz yellow jackets just before the bridge, clustered around an old Citroen 2 CV sporting Catalan and French flags. And like any avid bird-watcher my mind immediately turned to getting a photograph to prove it.
We shouldn’t have been surprised. The Pyrénées-Orientales and industrialised areas of the coast going north towards Montpellier are the happy hunting grounds of Marine le Pen and her National Rally (the mutated National Front) Party. In the 2017 Presidential elections, she won 41% of the vote in Hérault, 45% in Aude and, moving to the mountains, 47% of the vote in Pyrénées-Orientales - which had the highest unemployment rate in France, 12.7%. The Mediterranean rim has a poor track record for year-round employment. These protesters were Gilets Jaunes 66 from the Perpignan sector who, on this beautiful morning, had left the coastal plain for higher things.
My mind quickly moved from getting a good photograph to a more travel-focused anxiety. What if they were preparing to block the road? We would be cut off from our friends. They would be stuck in Cerêt all day while we would be trapped in Amélie. Here was a new and creative holiday anxiety: easily a match for fear of striking French air traffic controllers grounding us, or railway workers shutting down the railways. I did a U-turn, tentatively approached the group of Gilets Jaunes, and stopped, causing a minor traffic jam. They directed us in a friendly fashion into a yard just off the road so we could talk.
“No”, they were not going to block the road. They seemed a little shocked that I thought they might. Would they mind us taking a photograph? They would be positively delighted if we took a photograph - several photographs. And so we have the whole group, a group with us in the middle, and another in front of the heroic Citroen CV which, it was proudly announced, had been to the Paris demonstrations . The CV had been signed by Parisian Gilets Jaunes just like on a football after the big match. It was a powerful symbol of French identity as well as Catalan protest.
The protesters’ slogans and the bunting were on the vague side. “On lâche rien” – Never give up. “Macron Démission” – Macron Resign. And “SOS Santé Publique, Urgence - SOS Public Health, Crisis/Urgent; Macron’s public health reform began in 2016. We got talking. I asked about their current “revendications”, demands, but the answers were on the short side. “Augmentation” seemed to be all that needed repeating, a code word for an increase in the hourly minimum wage for over 18s, the SMIC, (Salaire minime interprofessionel de croissance).
All the men and women in the group were in their late 50s, early 60s, working class, and having a jolly time waving to cars that honked as they passed. The Citroen formed a material and symbolic bond with past, more riotous shenanigans in Paris, like a giant papal medal linking a rural Catholic to the panting heart of Rome. They were having far too good a time to give up easily and, if an increase in the minimum wage was top of their personal list amongst the forty or so demands coming from the Movement, more power to their arms.
I have come to the conclusion that with the storming of the Bastille as the great seminal moment in French Republican history, protest, demos, and disruption, jolly or confrontational, went into the French bloodstream. Much of the French public seem to be comparatively at ease with them - even if they block the road for a while. Participants obviously enjoy them as a day out. Unlike the British middle class who march dutifully causing minimal damage, though often with witty banners, and climate change protesters with creative and daring forms of disruption.
With hopes for social justice in Britain draining away by the day as Boris Johnson climbs to the top of the greasy pole to become Prime Minister, and the country falls apart, we will need to borrow the Gilets Jaunes slogan: “On lâche rien”
“Never give up”.