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People Around France React To The Yellow Vest Protests


The yellow vest protesters, les gilets jaunes, will be out in Paris tomorrow demonstrating for the fourth Saturday in a row. Last week's demonstration turned violent. The rioters burned cars and destroyed property. This week, many stores in Paris are closing to avoid the risk. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley talked with a protester and a shop owner and sends this report.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Away from the scenes of violence in Paris, this is what thousands of yellow vest protests look like. A group of people wearing yellow vests have built an encampment in the middle of a traffic circle on a rural highway about an hour from the city of Lille. They're not blocking the road. They're just waving to the trucks and cars that pass by, many of which honk their support. Some drivers even stop to chat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Forty-five-year-old Corinne Ryckaert joined the movement as soon as it began in mid-November. She says she's struggling to raise her two kids on her modest salary as a nursery school aide. Like everyone here, Ryckaert has to use her car to get around. She says it's outrageous that President Emmanuel Macron withdrew a tax on the superrich just as he was raising gas and diesel prices for ordinary folk.

CORINNE RYCKAERT: (Through interpreter) The rich people don't pay this wealth tax anymore, yet we're being squeezed for every penny. They're the ones polluting with their yachts and jets a lot more than we are when we go on vacation in our little cars.

BEARDSLEY: Though the government has now withdrawn the tax on fuel, Ryckaert says the yellow vest movement has many more demands, including more taxes on the wealthy. Worlds away from that roundabout on Paris' Avenue de la Grande-Armee, I meet Thierry Stapts, who owns a business selling high-end motorcycles and their accessories. This store was looted last Saturday, so he's closing for the weekend and boarding up all the windows. Stapts says scrapping that wealth tax was an important campaign promise of President Emmanuel Macron to draw investors back to France. Reinstating it, says Stapts, will mean one thing.

THIERRY STAPTS: All those investors - they don't want to stay in France, so nobody wants to invest. And if you don't have any investors, you don't have business. You don't have business, you don't have work. It's very simple.

BEARDSLEY: Stapts says since the days of the revolution, France has been fixated by the struggle between rich and poor.

STAPTS: It's very frustrating because we work, we invest, and people think we have a lot of money. And they don't like us, which is ridiculous because I'm not absolutely rich.

BEARDSLEY: But you're a patron, right?

STAPTS: Yeah, a patron. Yeah, patron is a dirty word.

BEARDSLEY: Back at the yellow vest camp, patron or company boss is definitely a dirty word. People here say bosses will always try to exploit their workers, and they think President Macron is on the wrong side. Here's Corinne Ryckaert again.

RYCKAERT: (Through interpreter) With this government, we have the impression that we've gone back to the Middle Ages and we're the little people who pay the lord to live on his land.

BEARDSLEY: Standing in his motorcycle store near the Arc de Triomphe, Stapts says President Macron is trying to make France more entrepreneurial and business-friendly to create jobs. But he says the government has completely failed to communicate that message to people who are barely scraping by.

STAPTS: To me, it's very simple and clear. The guy wants to make some reforms, which he's trying to do. But the way they do it, it's not very smart.

BEARDSLEY: Stapts and Ryckaert do agree on two things. Both say there are too many taxes in France, and both are worried that extremists are using the yellow vest protests for their own ends. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.


Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.