The Yellow Vests and French State Security
AP Photo/Christophe Ena
The Yellow Vests and French State Security
AP Photo/Christophe Ena
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During last Saturday’s Yellow Vest protests in Paris, a group of toughs used a hijacked construction vehicle to break into the courtyard of the building where the government spokesman has his office. Benjamin Griveaux, the spokesman, was hustled out amid the threat of violence. The incident shocked people across France. The Gilets Jaunes protests that have attracted wide supportthroughout the country seemed this time to have crossed a line.  

Officials including President Emmanuel Macron denounced the violence as “an assault on the Republic,” an overused cliché that needlessly dramatizestensions. Still, a prominent Yellow Vest leader a few months ago did raise the idea of trying to break into the Elysée Palace.

This latest twist in the Yellow Vest plot made me think of a conversation I had in the Elysée some 30 years ago, when I was writing a book on President Francois Mitterrand. I was interviewing Hubert Vedrine, at the time Mitterrand’s chief of staff.

We were in Vedrine’s office in the Elysée, 55 rue du Faubourg St. Honore, in the 8th arrondissement, not far from the American Embassy and the Place de la Concorde. In short, the presidency sits directly in the elegant center of historic Paris on a narrow city street. This is not the most secure site for a presidential palace. Moreover, fears of terrorist attacks were acute in that era.

The doors to Vedrine’s office were ornate wood, about 15 feet high -- typical for an early 18th Century Parisian nobleman’s mansion. I looked at them and imagined the similar doors to Mitterrand’s office just across the grand staircase. (This had been De Gaulle’s old office, and I had once interviewed Mitterrand there.) There were a couple of elegant ushers to show visitors around, but no one who looked mission-capable.

I asked Vedrine, “What protection have you got against terrorist attacks? It seems possible that a terrorist group could rush the Elysée, break through the gate, run up the staircase and take the President of France hostage.”  

I imagined hidden steel doors able to close in a few seconds, a secret passage down to some underground bunker. Remarkably, Vedrine looked at me and said, “Qu’est-ce que vous voulez qu’on fasse?”  That is, what do you suggest we do about it? The Elysée as a fortress is hopeless.   

It seemed a stupefying fatalism unless Vedrine was putting me on. But I think he was serious.

Perhaps today the Elysée is armed with hidden steel doors and other forms of protection, but the building remains a sitting duck. Is number 10 Downing St. better protected? The German chancellery is. Then there’s the White House, highly protected yet still vulnerable. In Cameroon’s capital Yaounde, the presidential palace sits literally atop a hill, with a kind of terraced set of barriers protecting it on the way up. One thinks of Machiavelli’s advice on protecting the Prince and the State.  

On returning to power in 1958, during the Algerian War, Charles de Gaulle considered moving the presidency to Versailles. It’s not merely more magnificent, it’s also more defensible, as De Gaulle, a military man, was well aware. Today, Macron may envisage moving the presidential palace to a new construction out of central Paris, where it could be better organized and protected.  

Nevertheless, imagine that in today’s France, a few dozen rioters were able to get into the presidential palace. Or imagine a couple of helicopters landing in the Elysée courtyard with terrorist squads.

France has always been overcentralized politically. A famous essay on France’s political arrangement has the title “Paris and the French desert.” Most government buildings, many of them dating from one or two centuries ago, are centralized as well. Even in 2019, peaceful Yellow Vest demonstrations accompanied by uncontrolled thugs smashing stores and attacking the police on the Champs-Elysées can terrorize a crucial part of the city and intimidate the government to the point that it fears overthrow -- as it did in 1968.  

This concentration of effect is one reason the Yellow Vest movement, the latest avatar of France's tradition of ‘going into the street,’ has been so effective. It helps explain why this unexpected, spontaneous uprising of genuinely aggrieved citizens has impacted the country for eight weeks now and has attracted so much media attention in the United States. 

There are plenty of other countries with a tradition of massive street marches that sometimes descend into violence. But for Americans, France’s inability despite its thousands of police to deal with the demonstrations and keep rioters away from sensitive targets seems incomprehensible. The French state’s vulnerability to the violence of social protest is an anachronistic weakness that needs fixing. Its endurance appears to represent a kind of fatalism or incompetence.