President Macron stood in an open-top command car alongside France’s chief of staff General Francois Lecointre, as they headed down the Champs-Elysées to open the Bastille Day parade.
He smiled and waved at the flag-waving crowds, but some jeered and whistled as he passed by.
“It’s shameful,” said Vincent an engineer from Poitiers who’d come with his family to celebrate the 4,300 members of the armed forces who marched down the avenue’s famed cobblestones. The tradition dates back to the aftermath of World War I.
“This day isn’t about the president,” he explained, “it’s for the military forces, it’s their day of glory.”
Much of the jeering came from the Yellow Vests, or gilets jaunes supporters who have been staging weekly protests against the government since last autumn. They’re now on Act 35, and while the movement appears to have lost steam, they were determined to make their presence felt on Macron’s big day.
Several dozen walked up the Champs Elysées chanting the now classic “Macron démissione” (Macron resign). But also the more informative “on est là on est là, on est là pour l’honneur des travailleurs/ pour un monde meilleur/ meme si Macron ne veut pas/ mais on est là” (we’re here, we’re here, to honour the workers, for a better world, even if Macron doesn’t want that, we are here).
They were right about one thing: neither Macron nor the government wanted the gilets jaunes spoiling the party.
As France’s top military brass and equipment rolled down the Champs, riot police whisked several of the more vocal protestors off the scene and into nearby vehicles.
Bemused tourists scarcely knew which way to look for the best anecdote to tell folks back home.
“I have no clue what’s going on,” said Leila from Brasilia. “We’re just trying to get to the Arc de Triomphe, we came here to enjoy the event but it’s hard to enjoy with all this.”
“It’s not what we were expecting,” said her friend Luisa, who clearly hadn’t been keeping up with French news.
Unlike the regular Saturday protests, this one was not authorised and there wasn’t a yellow vest hi-vis jacket in sight.
“Vests are forbidden, you can’t wear a yellow tie, a yellow hat, or a yellow vest,” raged Ludo who said he’d travelled 300 km to be here and looked well tired.
“You can’t express yourself anymore, we’re living in a dictatorship and we’re sick of it, Macron has to go.”
The spirit wasn’t just anti-Macron. Initial protests over hikes in fuel taxes have given way to broader demands for a full-blown anti-capitalist society.
“Every day we see injustice,” says Pierre, a construction worker wearing a smart white polo-shirt with a subtle yellow stripe on the collar. “The government’s gone too far, it’s unbearable.”
While some of his fellow protestors were being hauled away, he kept a discrete profile and still hoped to hook up with some comrades at the top of the avenue.
“I’ve got nothing against the military,” he continued. “But we want to change things at a fundamental level. I don’t care if the price of petrol comes down or whether we get a bit more or less pension. In any case the government likes to divide us so they’ll give something to the unemployed and some people will be satisfied.
"But we need urgent change. Scientists agree the situation around the world is dramatic, the eco-system is suffering. If we don’t react, we’re heading to the wall."
Pierre has no kids and admitted he’s better off than some Yellow Vests. “I’m here through a spirit of solidarity. I can’t leave all this behind for future generations.”
Prime minister heard nothing
Earlier in the day, a journalist from the Huffington Post tweeted showing prominent yellow vest, Eric Drouet, holding the French flag, surrounded by CRS. He was extracted from the scene.
AFP reported that two prominent figures in the movement, Jerome Rodrigues and Maxime Nicolle, were both detained by the police at around 9:15 on Sunday morning in the Champs-Elysée area.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said that he had “heard nothing” from the presidential tribune at Place de la Concorde.
“Undoubtedly some people wanted to express their opinion. As we’ve seen, they’ve been doing that for many Saturdays now. The main thing is that the parade went well and that we were able to show the armies and wounded veterans how much we respect them,” Philippe said as the parade drew to a close.
Among the cheering and gasping at the ever-impressive flypasts, there were other, more timid, expressions of Macron-fatigue.
“I booed a bit,” said 29-year old Flavie, who works in tourism, but has no links to the Yellow Vests. “Just so I’m not mistaken for a flag-waving Macron supporter. If I’m honest, we came more for the technology, for the flyboard."