PARIS — In a time when all certainties seem lost, the French Yellow Vests Movement is looking for a language and a symbolism able to unite them. It is striking how often Christianity is the place where they find both.
On Paris’s Champs- Élysées people in yellow vests and tourists are running by a friar holding an icon of the Madonna in his hands. His presence, dressed in sober black and wearing sandals, attracts attention in a city where every Saturday the streets are turning a bright yellow. Paris is weighed down by the anger about the injustice of it all, the violence of the powerless and the barbarity of the activists.
Not even Mary’s gaze on the icon can stop the crowd looking for justice from the president and underlining the promises of the French Revolution which all too often have not been kept. One of the crowd is a self-proclaimed martyr dragging a cross along miles and miles of road filled with teargas and burning barricades to demand freedom, equality, brotherhood, justice and peace for all.
Babylon on fire
France, the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church, is gripped by a fury exposing a deep cultural crisis. A crisis resulting from economic inequality, but also from the loss of communities and real unity. ‘Babylon on fire’ is written on a wall.
The smoke of dozens of burning cars throws shadows over a boulevard named after a general of the French Revolution. The cries, cracks and bright flashing lights make it seem like the Apocalypse has started. The streets have been taken over and it seems like the crowd will not rest until no stone has been left unturned.
Born to heal
Far-right and far-left, black and white, old and young, atheists and believers: the Yellow Vests are looking for a language and a symbolism that unites them all in meaningless times, a time when billboards seem to speak to us more than icons, a time when care, healing and love seem to have been overtaken by hate and vandalism. But, o tempora o mores, also a time when faith, hope and love are still enduring in the midst of violence: On walls, on burned-out cars, on people’s clothes, in the way they carry themselves.
‘Born to heal’ is written on the white helmet of a volunteer offering first aid to the victim of a rubber bullet. Deus vult, the cry of the crusaders, is written on some of the yellow vests: ‘God willing.’ The Cross of Lorraine, symbol of Free France, clashes with the national flag which seems to be tainted by the broken promises of a dignified life in the modern world. From a billboard even the pope is looking on at the police and the demonstrators.
The Apocalypse. Holy anger. A crusade for a New France. Vandalism blinded by the joy of demolishing everything in the public domain. Or a bit of everything: chaos rules. Is there a language capable of healing what has been broken, is there an anchor preventing us from drifting away when the wind will not die down?
This article was originally published in the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad on March 1, 2019. It was translated for Crux by Susanne Kurstjens-van den Berk.
The pictures were taken between Dec. 1, 2018, and Feb. 2019.