Paris Is… Burning?

Sick of the chaos in Venezuela, I ran off to Paris. And then protests seemed to follow me here. My PTSD’d self could barely handle it, at first. But then I saw the French have a whole different way to do street chaos... nothing at all like ours.

Photo: RT, retrieved.

All week I was nervous, making sure I ran all my new-migrant errands (get cheap winter clothes, take advantage of free tourism) before the streets went loopy. That Saturday, I locked myself in the house, watching the news on YouTube, waiting to hear screams and explosions.

This wasn’t the Paris I had been expecting.

For us Venezuelans, protests can be deeply traumatic. Memories of chaos, violence, arrests and blood. I was ready to be PTSD’d out of my mind, but the French have a different approach. For one thing, we had almost a week’s advanced notice: on a Monday, the gilets jaunes were announcing demonstrations for that Saturday. That gave everyone, including the authorities, the chance to prepare.

I only heard the wind between the trees in front of my window.

Maybe I was overreacting a bit. How could I not be, after all we went through?

I arrived in France four months ago, without a clue about the riots that were just around the corner. After going through the Caracas stress, the Parisian air was extremely refreshing; the beauty of its architecture, the colorful cafés, the underground tunnels, it all invites you to an adventure where you can actually explore your environment in less hostile fashion than what we experience in Venezuela.

Or so it was, before Paris caught on fire.

That Saturday, I locked myself in the house, watching the news on YouTube, waiting to hear screams and explosions. This wasn’t the Paris I had been expecting.

Third wave exiles face a real challenge in seeing other nation’s problems as something we need to be concerned about. You’d imagine that, with riots in the capital, walking the streets would be out of the question, with everything closed as the state of emergency passes. Well, Paris is the first tourist destination in the world and, regardless of chaos, hundreds of shops, museums and restaurants are always ready to meet the demand. In Caracas, demonstrations determined whether you’d even leave your house that day; here, the protest is reduced to specific sectors, and life flows around it.

In the second week of unrest, for example, some friends and I decided to go on a cruise party on the Seine. You know, buffet, bachata classes (for some reason the French think we Latinos love it) and two areas for dancing until four in the morning, for just ten euros, quite sweet when you come from a place where night clubs have no running water. We’d have to cross Paris from east to west, so you bet I was bracing for winter, but we didn’t see any warning sign during the whole trip. What you see on TV? Not even a distant scream for us. There were only three closed metro stations, and the train just passed through them. The only real problem we faced was my Finnish friend who couldn’t stop throwing up. The streets were calm and we walked like you would on any other day.

Even the attitude of the police is super odd for the criollo spectator; at the beginning of the clashes, they tried to be as restrained as possibledemonstrators could flood the streets around the Arch of Triumph and shout without facing a single cop. It’s like, only the presidential palace was really protected. It took the Gilet jeunes’ violence for them to actually launch tear gas; many criminals use protests as a pretext to go on gang-stuff, from generating fires, to destroying luxury stores where losses reach millions of euros. When that began, the police got really touchy, but one thing is for sure: No weapons were used, with live or rubber ammo. It’s just tear gas and water for crowd control.

All of this is happening because the French government levied a new carbon tax, provoking a rise in a fuel price that was already expensive. Filling the tank of a small car goes for 80 euros, and if you consider that minimum wage is around 1,400 euros, you can see how some people are rather annoyed, having to fill their tanks several times a month.

So, they protest, but only on Saturdays, and that is super puzzling to your classic Venezuelan demonstrator. See, the dynamic is based on weekly negotiations and waiting for government statements at the end of Fridays. If a satisfactory term isn’t reached, the cycle begins again. People literally protest on their free days, the French system doesn’t allow them to leave their posts for whatever the reason.

In Caracas, demonstrations determined whether you’d even leave your house that day; here, the protest is reduced to specific sectors, and life flows around it.

Maybe because memories of clashes back home are still very fresh in me, I have tried to avoid the incidents like the plague, but close friends did approach me during the third week of demonstrations, and both told me how the police closed the metro stations after riots began. Everyone was crowded and herded like sheep, quickly, decisively.

“It was like a war,” they described it to me, with the astonishment of someone who just saw a battle in Syria. “We were leaving and we heard this explosion that could have been like a big bomb.”

And I was, like, “Aha.”

They couldn’t get my reaction.

“I’m used to this kind of situation,” I said, not wanting to go into details.

Last week, I was on a train to Paris. There were only three people following the news from their phones. In Venezuela, everyone watched YouTube channels all day (because, remember, mainstream media is heavily censored), but here, “we protest for everything,” my French teacher told me. “There are many small demonstrations and sometimes it’s hard to remember why they protested last year, and the previous one.”

This has been nothing but contrasts. Anyone who has left their country knows that emigrating is like dying and being born again, and I feel like a baby that must learn to speak, move and behave in a new environment. I arrived to this country with the hope of making a new life, yet many of us got to deal with complicated migratory processes in which visas, scarce savings, and bets on uncertain futures are paraded in our carousel of worries. The protests in Paris have only shown me how different, or degenerated, our situation is in Venezuela, and how much these years are playing into my expectations. We, Criollos, must keep observing and gathering tools for whatever the future holds in our new environments… or inside our own borders.