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Yellow Vest Protestors In Paris Mix With Notre Dame Cathedral Mourners


Yellow vest protesters are back in the streets of Paris today, as they have been each Saturday since November. They say they are enraged the government could raise a billion dollars in just a few days to help restore the Notre Dame Cathedral but can't find similar funds to help the struggling working class and elderly in France. Officials had warned demonstrators not to stir up trouble today and banned them from gathering on the Ile de la Cite, where the Notre Dame Cathedral is located. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joins us from the streets of Paris. Eleanor, thanks so much for being with us.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, I'm happy to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And the situation has gotten much more serious today suddenly...

BEARDSLEY: Let's say...

SIMON: ...Hasn't it?

BEARDSLEY: Yes, it's degenerated. Actually, it's a strange city today. I was just in Saint-Germain-des-Pres, where people were sitting at cafes and shopping. But now I'm at Place de la Republique where the yellow vest protest march ended. And the police are here. And I think they were trying to keep them from taking over the square.

You can hear people singing in the background, maybe. But we've witnessed just tons of volleys of tear gas being fired. I've seen wounded people being taken on stretchers with their heads bandaged into ambulances. I've seen the police and undercover police very - roughhousing, you know, manhandling people, grabbing, exfiltrating them from the protest because there's a lot of - I don't know - anarchists, troublemakers - call them what you want - who've come out here to do this.

And they're arresting them. They're taking them out. They're trying, you know, to make sure it doesn't get out of hand. So it's very chaotic. But, you know, a mile away, it's a beautiful city.

SIMON: And remind us again what the protests are about. They've been going on for so many weeks now.

BEARDSLEY: Right. They started in November because there was a gas tax. And it was the straw that broke the camel's back. A lot of people sort of rose up from the heartland. And no one realized there was all these people. This small gas tax really affected them because they have to drive maybe 20 miles to get to work. They can't make ends meet every month. And they were furious. And then this morphed into something bigger and bigger every week. This is the 23rd week. And it's a huge movement now of people who feel they've been forgotten.

And Notre Dame, this week - everyone was sad about that. The yellow vest people were sad about it. They cried. But, you know, they said, but within two days, they raised a billion for a cathedral, and we can't get anything. We've been protesting for months. And we can't make ends meet. You know, we don't even have enough food to put on the table. I don't know if they're exaggerating or not. But - and they're angry now. And there's this anger of the inequality in France - the billionaires who can rebuild Notre Dame, but they don't care about the little people. And the man, they say, who is responsible for all this is President Emmanuel Macron.

SIMON: So President Macron, of course, issued a - what much of the world found a very moving appeal for unity following the fire at Notre Dame. Did that manage to strike exactly the wrong note with the yellow vest demonstrators?

BEARDSLEY: Yes. I mean, actually, nothing Macron can say will satisfy them. And they say life is not going to stop in France because Notre Dame burned. And so they want to hear from him. And he is going to speak next week. But they're angry. And there - it feels like nothing he can say will placate them at this point.

SIMON: I - at the same time, we we hear from people in France who complain that they're finding the protests every week to be just really irritating. Are they making their point? Are they gaining more popularity?

BEARDSLEY: You know, every week, it's been a different thing. They wax and wane depending on the mood of the country that week. And yeah, the country's divided. I mean, half the country thinks these people are a nuisance, and they need to go away. But they don't go away, Scott. And it's like a little, small dog yipping at Macron's heel - actually, not so small sometimes. He can't really proceed with anything else until he solves this crisis. And it will not go away. And I think probably half the country doesn't like them. But they still have public support because I think a lot of people do see there's inequalities. And people can't, you know, really make ends meet. And - so it's a very mixed bag. I keep waiting for the poll that will say, you know, 80% of the French want the yellow vests to go home. But it doesn't come.

SIMON: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, thanks so much.

BEARDSLEY: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
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