A Canadian-inspired Freedom Convoy against pandemic-related restrictions aims to reach Brussels on the 14th of February in a major European protest movement. The French part of the convoy converged on Paris on Saturday, February 12th, amidst a general climate of high tension, with the intention of stopping there before continuing on to Belgium.
The French government of Emmanuel Macron chose to show absolute firmness against the protesters. Access to Paris for the convoys was banned from Friday, February 11th to Monday the 14th, on the orders of the Paris police prefecture. For the first time since 2018, armoured gendarmerie vehicles have been stationed in Paris with the aim of preventing any penetration of the demonstrators into the city. Special machines were also installed to remove any attempt to block the streets. Access to the centre of Paris was blocked with many gates closed on the Paris ring road which surrounds the city on the site of the old fortifications—making access difficult even for the Parisians.
Many demonstrators managed to reach the centre of Paris and the Champs-Elysées Avenue—a few hundred metres from the Elysée Palace where Emmanuel Macron lives.
On Saturday the 12th, shocking images were posted on social networks, showing police beating up demonstrators, breaking car windows, and fining people simply for waving a French flag.
The Freedom Convoy movement in France bore a number of similarities to the Gilets Jaunes movement that had engulfed France in late 2018, when masses gathered to protest fuel hikes and the disconnection of political elites from the lives of the French.
Political opponents of President Emmanuel Macron have attacked the French president for his handling of the protests. Representatives from the far left party La France Insoumise blasted the police violence that the government is regularly guilty of. On the right, several voices were raised to denounce a show of force deemed totally disproportionate: for example, armoured vehicles have never before been sent to control any of the violent riots that have repeatedly agitated the French suburbs. Similarly, the Champs-Elysées are often the scene of clashes during sporting events involving African or North African teams, with parades of Algerian, Tunisian, or Turkish flags, none of which acquired fines. Both Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour condemned Emmanuel Macron’s violence, accusing him of despising the French people and “bringing out the armour.” Members of the Les Républicains party, on the other hand, supported Emmanuel Macron by condemning the blockades and calling for order to be maintained.
Legal action is planned to respond to the observed excesses of the forces of order. Images broadcast on the 8pm news on TF1 show a policeman pointing his service weapon at the driver of a car, after a chase at the Arc de Triomphe. An administrative enquiry was opened into the matter.
The Freedom Convoy failed in fully achieving its objective of blocking the French capital, but the demonstration received a lot of media coverage. From Sunday onwards, the participants continued their progress towards Lille.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).