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So, one afternoon as I was walking back to our apartment, I ran into a protest led by the Gilet Jaunes. I’m not sure if you’re up on French politics but the Gilet Jaunes are a group of protesters, a movement that’s been happening in France since November, 2018. These are yellow-vest-wearing protestors who oppose mostly the financial direction of the French government, namely the raising of taxes on certain things like gas.
Now you gotta remember that since the French Revolution, protesting for the French people has been a national pastime—they truly identify the ability to call bullshit on the government.
Well, unlike most protests in France, this one’s gotten violent at times and thousands of people have been arrested and several people have even died. Before coming to France, I was boning up on my language skills, listening to the French news, and hearing about these protests and I really hoped that I didn’t encounter any of them while I was in France.
Like I said, one day, I’m walking back to my apartment and I’m pushing my son in the stroller through one of the main squares in Nice, Place Garibaldi, when I see a Gilet Jaunes protest happening. But this is Nice, where everything is more tranquil and more laissez-faire and so instead of protesters lobbing bricks and molotov cocktail bombs, these protestors (most of whom couldn’t even be bothered to wear the damn yellow vest) looked like they were gossiping, dancing, or otherwise enjoying an afternoon together in the square. People were sharing cheese.
Now whenever a protest happens in France, the French riot police automatically show up. So on the other side of the square, a safe distance from the half-hearted Nice faction of the Gilet Jaunes, was a full arsenal of riot cops: big dudes who look like they were recently pulled from a rugby field somewhere but instead of rugby jerseys, they were wearing Kevlar armor.
I don’t care how tough you are, in France you greet your friends, both men and women, with a kiss on both cheeks. So I witnessed these riot cops filing out of their battle vans and arriving on the “riot scene,” each big and burly cop, dressed to the teeth for battle, greeting EVERY other cop with a gentle kiss on both cheeks. This created something akin to a wedding line of kissing cops.
Sure, there may be civil unrest but it’s no reason to be uncivilized. I wished I could have pulled out my phone to capture that priceless moment of lackadaisical protestors and kissing cops but I feared that doing so would violate some unspoken code of propriety so I merely pushed my stroller along my way.
A few days later, while I was holed up, writing in the apartment, Sen and Elio were down at the beach enjoying themselves until a really, really, obnoxiously drunk guy came up and started to harass everyone in the vicinity. Another guy, not far from Sen and Elio who was trying to enjoy the beach was really getting bothered by Drunk Guy
France has really increased its military presence in public places in the last few years due to terrorist attacks and so it’s not uncommon to see the camo-and-beret-clad, machine-gun-and-flack-jacket sporting army dudes patrolling in little platoons around town.
Well, the guy on the beach (heretofore known as Angry Guy) had finally reached his boiling point with Drunk Guy (who really was being an ass) and Angry Guy made a big to-do toward the nearest beret with a machine gun to do something about Drunk Guy.
Army Dude then very calmly walked down the stairs from the Pramenade to the beach, loaded machine gun strapped to his chest, and spoke gently to Drunk Guy and Angry Guy. He then gently helped Drunk Guy by the arm up the stairs, away from the beach toward the Pramenade. Drunk Guy proceeded to sit on the 20’ wall overlooking the beach, fall off said wall (only 20’) get back up without anything broken, including his bottle of wine.
At this point, Army Guy gently walked down the stairs again and helped Drunk Guy up the stairs and sent him walking along his way with an encouragement to stop bothering people.
As Sen told the story, it was clear that Army Guy had 100% of the power. Drunk Guy was of African decent, by the way. But despite Army Guy’s power, he was still the most civilized, gentle, and rational one of the bunch and the entire event passed such that the perfect afternoon in Nice wasn’t disturbed by any unnecessary violence or drama. The worst thing that happened was probably the headache for Drunk Guy the next day who vaguely remembered falling off a wall . . . and something about camouflage.
A few days later, I was sitting in a cafe with Elio—I was writing in my journal and sipping an espresso while he was munching on a croissant—when a small platoon of these Army Guys came in, grabbed a few tables and proceeded to munch on their own croissants and espressos before heading off to make their patrols. Apparently this happens every day at this cafe.
What all of these snapshots show me is that even in times of unrest there can be civility, culture, and even gentleness