LES ANDELYS, France — Before the local gendarmes shooed them away, the Yellow Vests found an unlikely sense of community on the traffic circles where they had gathered to demonstrate. There, people who before had felt alone, looked down upon and abandoned came together.
Yet in Les Andelys, a collection of hamlets in western Normandy, as in many other parts of France, the Yellow Vests have now been banned from the roundabouts, denied, quite literally, the common ground to coalesce and talk through what comes next for them.
At least that is what the government seems to hope.
There is no doubt that the virtual space offered by social media was important to the Yellow Vests’ organization, and remains so. But it is no substitute for a place where people can meet one another in person.
Much like the shops and post offices of the past — where people traded stories about their miseries and the microeconomics of their daily lives, the roundabouts provided a physical meeting place.
“Just a couple of decades ago, in every village there were little stores, little services, like the post office, the little grocery store; today the villages are dormitories,” said Bruno Laziou, a Yellow Vest protester in Les Andelys.
“Nothing is open anymore in my little village, other than the mayor’s office,” he said.
The use of the traffic circles as public space speaks to the fragmentation and accompanying isolation that has come to define much of life in the hinterlands of France, where the Yellow Vest movement took hold.
The government is now indisputably on the offensive; last week President Emmanuel Macron began to try to supplant the Yellow Vests’ impromptu meeting places with his own by having the prime minister set up a series of town hall-style gatherings called the “Great National Debate.” Mr. Macron said he hoped the supervised discussions would provide more peaceful, orderly and organized spaces for French citizens to vent their frustrations.
The message is clear: Get off the streets and come inside.
But even as he has talked about how the government wants to listen, it is not clear that he is yet truly doing so.
Mr. Macron talked almost nonstop for more than three hours during a first meeting with local mayors in Normandy on Tuesday. The plan had been for him to hear out the mayors.
On New Year’s Eve, he described some of the Yellow Vests as a “hateful mob” although he avoided naming the movement. And while he has talked about “deepening reforms,” neither he nor anyone in a senior position sounds interested in making the tax code changes the Yellow Vests want.
Instead, the government seem to be counting on the leaderless, somewhat disorganized movement to dissipate.
Numerous prefects — who are in charge of local French departments — have backed the government’s hard-line approach. So for now, many roundabouts are off limits, to the protesters’ disappointment, if not their complete discouragement.
The mayor of Les Andelys, Frédéric Duché, said he recognized the structural economic problems of his working-class town, but they are not something a mayor can change. He offered the Yellow Vests a room in a building owned by the mayor’s office, but they said it was too small and not centrally located.
More important, no one would see them there, said François Huvé, a carpenter and restorer of old houses.
“The traffic circles gave a certain visibility, a momentum and a unity,” he said.
For most it brought companionship into otherwise marginal lives.
“I met people at the roundabouts, neighbors who live in the same building as me and that I had not ever met before,” said Christelle Bréhélin, 46, a hairdresser who used to have a small salon in the village, but had to give it up because of the costs of running a small business.
“Because each of us is absorbed in our own suffering, one goes to work, and then goes back and hides at home,” she said. “One doesn’t have the money to go out,” and meet people she added.
She now works at home cutting hair for clients and does any small job she can — repainting furniture for 20 euros, and domestic cleaning. From the government, she also gets a monthly payment for the poor, plus an extra 100 euros, or about $113, to help with the cost of raising her 17-year-old son.
In the days after the gendarmes dismantled their huts in Les Andelys, just before Christmas, several Yellow Vests gathered at the local cafe.
After ordering the cheapest thing on the menu — a tiny cup of espresso — they picked up their conversations where they had left off at the roundabout, mulling what should come next.
Almost no one believed that they would feel the government’s decision to spend 10 billion euros to improve their circumstances. Even Mr. Macron’s decision not to raise the fuel tax would not lift their incomes, they said, just avoid further deflating them.
Amandine Laplanche, 32, said she wanted a job that would pay her enough to make it worth her while to work.
She teaches children with autism or other learning disabilities, working part time for two school districts and driving from one to the other on her own dime.
“There are many of us who earn too much to qualify for government help but not enough to be able to eat at the end of the month,” she said.
Each evening, she drives home to a rural subdivision outside Les Andelys — widely spaced 1970s houses on a hillside reached by a rough road. Her simple modern house is surrounded by a lawn with little landscaping.
The inside is sparsely furnished: a couch, a dining room table with a few papers and a framed photo of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, which she hopes to visit one day.
She threw a blanket over her shoulders and curled up on the couch, tapping messages to fellow Yellow Vests she used to meet at the traffic circle and to others in neighboring towns, where the encampments were also dismantled.
Until now, the Yellow Vests generally tried to avoid discussing politics with each other, preferring to focus public attention on their shared economic troubles.
But without a political vision, they can be divided more easily by the government. She worries that the Yellow Vests, to be heard at all, will have to move left or right.
Ms. Laplanche voted for Mr. Macron, but has been disillusioned by his failure to help working people.
Others are hardly political at all. At the cafe was Patricia Blot, a onetime nurse, who had fallen ill and stopped leaving her house, but was roused by the cause of the Yellow Vests.
The last politician she liked, she said, was Charles de Gaulle, but — dead for nearly 50 years — he is little more than a childhood memory.
But also there was Mr. Laziou, an admirer of the far-right, nationalist leader Marine Le Pen.
At the other end of the table, Mr. Huvé, the carpenter, described himself as an environmentalist and supporter of a far-left, anticapitalist party.
Divorced with grown children, he can afford to live only in the house he is renovating — two open-plan rooms with a hodgepodge of tools, an old wardrobe, a simple wooden table, a sink and a spotlight for doing carpentry late at night.
He worried that the Yellow Vest frustration with government would sweep them up, perhaps unwittingly, in far-right politics.
“It’s not that people are extreme right, but they find in it a way of saying, ‘We don’t agree,’” he said — with the government, with the way things are.
“Then they say, ‘Well, we’ve tried everything except the extreme right, so why not?’”
That may be the danger of the government’s approach of dispersing the eclectic clusters of protesters and taking back their public space.
As Ms. Laplanche watched the gendarmes dismantle the camp on the roundabout where the protesters had gathered since mid-November, her reaction was telling about the great distance Mr. Macron needs to close.
“The government has no response to us,” she said. “Now they are taking away our right to demonstrate; they don’t want to hear us.”
Orignially published in NYT.