Guest Post by: Foster Marketing Senior Quentin Lebeau. He is a Foster School Undergraduate who participated in a Foster Exchange at Audencia Business School in Nantes, France in Fall semester 2018.
My friend and I had gone to Paris for the weekend to explore and also see the PSG soccer match. We had done some shopping, saw some attractions and then hopped on the metro for the Arc de Triumph. Confusingly, the metro skipped a few stops, but we didn’t think much of it. Finally, the metro let us off at the final stop. At this point, we knew something was off, but we didn’t know what. We ascended the stairs, to street level and was immediately met with the strong musk of smoke. The sky was dark with smoke and crowds of people were everywhere. Flames were visible in the foreground of the Arc. We approached a little closer, still unsure what this was about, and what had sparked it. Scenarios raced through my head: was this an attack? An accident? What could it be? With no no access to internet, it was difficult to come to a conclusion. We kept approaching the Arc de Triumph, until we were right next to the flames. That’s when we noticed all the bright yellow vests, and knew that it must be a protest. We felt relieved, but still anxious at all the noise and smoke still streaming from the area. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a masked motorcyclist came charging into the area, and dropped an object. We sprinted in the opposite direction. Luckily, it was only a smoke bomb, but the whole action had created a tension among the crowds. We decided it was time to leave, but the question was…how?
The nearby metro stops had all been closed, and the area was becoming more and more filled with smoke and protesters. We took to the side streets, away from the central conflict, but close enough to feel the action. After walking for about ten minutes, seeing smoke and fire, we escaped into a McDonald’s where we attempted to find internet. We were unsuccessful. As we left the golden arches, we immediately found ourselves in front of a wall of yellow vest clad protesters, chanting and screaming. They were about 30 feet away, marching in our direction. As they approached we ran to the other side of the street and scampered down another side street. That’s when we heard screams and running. We looked, and saw the wall of protesters had dissipated into an unorganized, running mass. We continued down the side street, distancing ourselves from whatever had just happened. That’s when we felt it. It like someone had smothered my face with wasabi. My eyes teared up, and my nose, mouth, throat and lungs began to burn. We’d been hit with tear gas.
We tried to cover our faces, but the sensation wouldn’t cease. Our eyes were bloodshot and watering, and we couldn’t stop coughing. Eventually, we found a store that we retreated into, joining a group of others escaping the chaos. After recovering our senses, we departed back into the streets. Smoke was still in the air, yellow vests plentiful and our throats were tender. We continued navigating the maze of side streets, until finally we arrived at the main road on the opposite side of where we started. As we walked into the road, both to our left, and to our right, crowds of protesters, with fire and smoke in the peripheral were converging upon our position. We spotted an open metro station and dashed down the stairs. Instead of freedom, we were met by a massive, wheezing crowd of people. We found ourselves like sardines, struggling to reach the open doors of the metro. As we waited for the next train, our throats began to tingle. We looked to the entrance, and realized that tear gas and smoke was creeping its way into the station. Others noticed, and suddenly it was a mad frenzy to get on the metro. As soon as the doors opened we were able to push and wedge our way in, just before it left. We looked at each other, eyes red and pits sweaty, and decided that was an exhilarating experience that we’d rather not have again.
But, it did happen again. I didn’t know at the time, but every Saturday, for my remaining time in France, there was going to be a riot, in not only Paris, but in my town, Nantes, and most other cities throughout the country. In Nantes, Saturdays would usually start calm, and by the afternoon smoke would occupy the air, and public transit would be shut down. It wasn’t uncommon to see cars or other objects on fire, and police in full riot gear roaming the streets. I would go on to experience more tear gas, and witness more mobs of people, but this time with a greater understanding of what was happening. While these protests were destructive and inconvenient, and I think they helped me to learn a lot about French culture. It was a subject I was able to discuss with many French students, and try to better understand the reason for the protests and the importance behind the movements. It was great to hear different perspectives and the reasoning to better grasp the current political climate of France.