When I left Paris four years ago to settle in the pretty Drôme valley in south-eastern France, I opted for a village not far from the city of Valence. I wanted to be close to a high-speed rail station, but remote enough to finally be able to enjoy the fresh air and rural surroundings. At the time, I didn’t expect I’d be moving from one world to another. I had reckoned on making regular trips back to the capital. But Paris has gradually become a distant, hazy concept. When I do go to visit friends, it feels cut off, like a city in a bubble, carefully concealing its pockets of poverty while proudly showing off its cultural trophies and temples of consumption.
Life here, in contrast, has been tranquil, almost slow motion. The woman on the till at the local shop takes her time to chat to customers and no one complains, unlike in Paris. When people see someone speeding they often say: “Ah, that guy’s from the city.”
More and more of us city people are taking refuge here, between the Alps and Provence, in France’s top organic food-producing region. We fortysomethings looking for new meaning in life often cluster together. We’re easy to spot, haunting local markets with hessian bags and lining our cupboards with preserving jars. Supermarkets are for “the others”.
Until the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests began a month ago, I’d had little contact with those “others”, mainly employees, artisans and small contractors. But the other evening my partner, a local farmer, and I stopped to chat to a group of people protesting at a roundabout. The group of men standing around a fire seemed pleased to see visitors.
“Not too cold,” my partner asked. “No, no, we’ve seen worse,” one man replied. “Climate change is a load of nonsense: it doesn’t exist,” he went on, complaining about one of the reasons the government introduced the fuel tax rise that triggered the protests. “Really,” I asked, “but what about all the flooding, and the heatwave this summer?” “Listen,” he said, “we had a heatwave in 1976, and in 1960. You’re too young to know, but I’m 70 and I was born on the land. I can tell you: they’re lying.” The word “they” pointed to an utter distrust of the media and elites.
“But what would ‘they’ stand to gain by lying about climate change,” I queried. “Well, obviously, pushing the price of petrol up!” he answered. It was baffling logic, but I felt that he was harking back to an apparently stable, reassuring time in which the seasons followed an unchanging pattern. I sensed his fear of a world that was cracking up, the kind of fear that stops us seeing what is blindingly obvious.
A white-haired, moustached gilet jaune then came up to us with another explanation: “It’s all the migrants’ fault. Africa is invading us. These people are OK to work for €1 an hour. It makes the rest of us poorer. We no longer count in our own country.” It was dark, and he couldn’t see that my skin was light brown, which was just as well. “Don’t you think you’re crediting migrants with rather a lot of power?” I suggested. “Perhaps it’s the multinational firms that dictate the terms in the job market and pocket the profits?” He paused and nodded: “Yeah, you’re right.” He added: “Here we’ve always welcomed everyone – the Poles, Italians, Portuguese – no problem. In the 1970s in our block of flats in Valence, we’d always greet our Algerian neighbours. The women didn’t wear headscarves then. Everything was fine.”
A sandwich box stacked with pizza slices was handed around. A car drove by and hooted the gilets jaunes in a sign of support. The man with the moustache raised his arms to form a V and shouted: “People of France, rise up!” It was just another sign of how deeply Marine Le Pen’s ideas have seeped into people’s minds.
But another gilet jaune joined in to say: “I don’t agree with any of that. It’s true there are Front National supporters around here, but many others are of all possible stripes, and the important thing is that we’re all talking. We want nothing to do with political parties. I’ve just joined the movement, I usually never go to demos. Now I’m utterly fed up and above all I hate [Emmanuel] Macron. I can’t stand how arrogant he is. I want the system to change, not just the price of petrol.”
Like many people in the Drôme valley he lives 20 or 30km from his workplace in Valence. With rail services having been cut, he has little option but to drive. In Paris, people can cycle and rent electric cars. There’s nothing like that here.
“We’ll stick it out to the end,” the gilets jaunes insisted. One of them proudly explained he’d continue to stand there at the roundabout despite working hard all week. He was full of enthusiasm. In fact, they all seemed pleased to be socialising, discussing work, life and their hopes of creating another world.
A few of them said they’d like the gilets jaunes to join a wider campaign to move away from capitalism: fewer cars, less consumption, better quality of life, a safe planet. But others focused on the deep faultlines in France: “Some people can afford to think about the end of the ‘system’, but most of us just worry about how to cope until the end of the month.”
Among the thousands of gilets jaunes outposts that now dot this country, each person has his or her story, and each one is experiencing something entirely new. For France, too, this is different. The gilets jaunes have brought life and colour to places that many assumed had fallen fast asleep. In these rural areas where so many bistros have closed and social organisations are disappearing, the movement is creating a sense of belonging, helping people connect to a wider story.
It’s unclear whether President Macron’s TV statement on Monday, including a pledge to increase the minimum wage, will stem the anger. It could even inflame it further. As a former city-dweller something may set me apart from the gilets jaunes, but when all is said and done I much prefer an anger that brings people out of their homes and stirs debate and passionate outbursts to the fear that separates people into bubbles. That fear can deadlock an entire society.
Nora Bensaâdoune is a writer from the Drôme region of France.