Letter From Paris: The Political Implications of Walking the Champs-Elysees
As every Parisian will tell you, when traveling the Avenue des Champs Elysées, you have to know the rules. Either you go up or you go down. Those who charge uphill, toward the Arc de Triomphe, are ambitious go-getters, rising stars on a mission. In contrast, those who march downhill, toward the Place de la Concorde—toward the center of town—are champions, their egos secured. This rule works for everyone, whether you’re a tourist on a shopping spree, venturing into the luxury boutiques that line the avenue (Hermès, Gucci, Vuitton), or a commuter stuck in traffic behind the wheel of your Peugeot.
If you go up, you mean business; if you go down, you’re in control.
French President Emmanuel Macron is an upper. He has repeatedly preempted this great street to burnish his presidential image, taking advantage of every official opportunity to go up the Champs Elysées. The presidential palace is located at the bottom of the avenue, on the right side when you look up. Turning his back on the town, he heads for the top. His inaugural parade was the first time he demonstrated this preference. Ever since, he chooses to be photographed walking up, or standing proud, with the ascending view of the avenue as a backdrop.
There are no pictures of Macron marching down the Champs Elysées. He always goes up, whether by foot or by car, buried inside a limousine or parading on top of an armored personnel carrier, as he did during his inauguration. Ascend he must. On the other side of the Triumphal Arch, the perspective extends all the way to the financial district of La Défense, a symbolic destination for a president whose political agenda is based on economic growth, the creation of wealth, and increased prosperity for the rich.
Descending the Champs Elysées, in contrast, is a populist choice.
Historically, downhill marchers have been heroes or leaders with nothing left to prove. Most memorable was Charles de Gaulle marching down the Champs Elysées on August 26, 1944, during the liberation of Paris, the tallest man in the crowd, striding confidently 10 steps ahead of the generals and his supporters, marching behind him.
Victory laps by winning sports teams are traditionally downhill parades, with cheering crowds on either side of the avenue. Funeral cortèges honoring heads of state and national heros take that same downhill route. Napoléon and Victor Hugo went that way, feet first, as did the popular French rocker/biker Johnny Hallyday. It was an emotional farewell, with hundreds of motorcyclists following his casket, paying tribute to the singer with full-throttle salute.
Up and down, back and forth, the avenue changes sides to accommodate different points of view. It’s not unlike a reversible garment, red or blue, depending on which way you wear it.
Its original color was royal blue, the color of the monarchy. In 1670, Louis XIV asked his landscape architect, André Le Notre, to trace a majestic perspective to extend the view of the royal palace beyond the Tuileries gardens. His successor, Louis XV, gave the avenue a regal portal by designing, at its eastern end, an elegant square adorned with fountains and statues—the now famous Place de la Concorde. A century later, Napoléon capped it all, at the top of the hill, with a triumphal arch as massive as a medieval castle.
The avenue turned blood red during the French Revolution, when the guillotine was set on the Place de la Concorde and angry citizens came from every corner of the city to watch the grisly executions. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads at the bottom of the Champs Elysées. In 1871, Emperor Napoléon III saw the royal Tuileries palace go up in smoke during the tragic civil war known as La Commune. In 1997, the avenue claimed its last royal victim: princess of Wales, Lady Diana, died in a car crash in the tunnel under the Champs Elysées.
Recently, the celebrated thoroughfare had one of its famous changes of heart, going from blue to red in less than a week.
On November 11, 2018, a rainy Sunday, Macron was at the top of the avenue, under the Arc de Triomphe, with more than 60 heads of state and dignitaries in attendance, including a very fidgety Donald Trump. The occasion was the celebration of the centennial of Armistice Day. The lengthy commemoration was excruciatingly solemn. Protocol was slow torture. At some point Macron gave a tedious 20-minute speech, with the perspective of the avenue framing his tailored silhouette. Behind him you could see all the way to the Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries gardens and the pyramid of the Louvre.
At the time, Macron’s attempt to appropriate the Parisian landscape for his own self-aggrandizing monarchist ambitions seemed ludicrous. In hindsight, it’s obvious that he had it coming.
As luck would have it, he stood on the very spot where, six days later, insurgents would be staging the first of many violent protest marches. To show their discontent, they would deface with graffiti and foul slogans the façade of the Arc de Triomphe, tarnishing a sacred symbol of democracy and spoiling for him the perspective of the Champs Elysées.
The trouble started when marchers by the thousands gathered at the top of the Champs Elysées, wearing yellow emergency vests, as a sign of protest. A small increase in a gasoline tax had triggered their anger. Their movement was spontaneous and their action disorganized: they were, for the most part, low wage earners from out-of-town, people who depend on their car to get to work.
However, lacking internal management, the Yellow Vests were at the mercy of infiltrators who, for various reasons, wanted to destabilize their movement and damage their nonviolent image. Uninvited thugs engaged in bloody scuffles with police forces. On videos, the yellow vested insurgents were shown breaking windows along the Champs Elysées, wrecking bus shelters, demolishing street lamps, building barricades and setting cars on fire. Tear gas obscured the scene. Screams and police sirens added to the confusion. Floating above the haze, the monumental silhouette of the Arc de Triomphe provided an incongruous sense of scale.
Since that first confrontation, rioters have come back every Saturday, rain or shine, so far skipping only one Saturday between Christmas and New Year. After each rally, the avenue is tidied up, the smoldering debris removed, the sidewalks scrubbed clean, the fallen streetlights repaired, the graffiti erased. By Monday it’s business as usual. The retailers on the avenue try to make a good impression for the sake of tourists who, quite understandably, fear for their safety. Late every Friday night, teams of carpenters can be seen preparing for the next day’s events the way homeowners prepare for a hurricane, by putting up plywood covers on store windows.
The unrest is spreading to other neighborhoods in Paris and to other French cities. In rural areas all over the country, the Yellow Vests set up camp on the central berms of circular crossroads to control or block traffic in all directions.
The unrest is spreading to other neighborhoods in Paris and to French cities like Bordeaux, Toulouse, Dijon, Strasbourg, and Montpellier. In rural areas all over the country, the Yellow Vests set up camp on the central berms of circular crossroads to control or block traffic in all directions. Their numbers in France each weekend varies, depending on who’s counting—half a million by some estimates, 10,000 by others. There is no way to predict how Macron will find his way out of the crisis, but every one agrees that the main issue is his lack of natural empathy for the people who elected him.
There is one simple thing the French president could do: the same thing de Gaulle did that August 26 day, when German occupants were fleeing Paris, leaving behind snipers on rooftops. Bullets flew in all directions. No one knew who was in charge of the situation. De Gaulle took the lead, walking in a straight line from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde—quiet, deliberate, unflappable, the roar of the cheering crowds lifting him like waves and pushing him toward his destiny.
Likewise, Macron could rise to the occasion by marching down the Champs Elysées, walking directly into the heart of town instead of running away from it. Only then could he meet the people where they live and embrace their problems as if they were his own.