I love pre-Christmas Paris. No city in Europe has nicer Christmas decorations. There were no indications that in a couple of days the most luxurious district will look like a battlefield!
I looked forward to seeing Christmas decorations of the most legendary hotels in Paris: Four Seasons, Ritz and Plaza Athénée. Whenever I go there it is a magnificent spectacle! They have huge vases there with flower decorations, or works of art directly in the foyer. You can enter the hotel even if you are not a guest there.
The Four Seasons Hotel was indeed no disappointment! In the lobby I was welcomed by two colossal white bears and the illuminated corridor into the courtyard (as at the Signal festival one year ago in Prague) was absolutely amazing.
I talk to people I know as well as strangers and no one suggests that there should be any demonstrations tomorrow. Not a mention, yet...
On Saturday, 24th November when in the morning I set off to Champs-Élysées to draw some cash from an ATM, I glimpse a small group of people in greens vests. At first glance, they look like road maintenance workers. When I enter the bank and the door is automatically closed behind me, I hear the first explosions and police sirens. I can see that one of the demonstrators has a labrador dog by his side. Poor dog, I keep thinking. It is certainly not good for him to breathe the fumes that the demonstrators and the police started to throw at each other.
In Avenue Montaigne, the most luxurious shopping avenue in Paris, my attention is drawn by Christmas decorations of the Dior boutique (the one where Carrie tripped and fell in Sex and the City). In the street there is a flow of tourists with their purchases. Some sit outside in front of the renowned restaurant, Avenue, where lunch is just beginning to be served.
To be in Paris and not have a look at Dior? No way! Directly at the entrance I am welcomed by a red giraffe (the "Toile de Jouy" collection features animal motifs) as well as a team of assistants. I am served by a Parisian, Victor. I look at the collection and at the same time I watch how outside the police sirens and shouts of “Macron - emission” get louder still.
"This is already a second demonstration, the first one was last weekend", my shopping assistant says. "But don´t worry, you are safe in Dior. If you want to take a while for the buzz to calm down, I could offer you a cup of coffee," he smiles as though nothing is going on.
When I ask what is the subject of the demonstration, he explains that it is a protest against the increase in taxes. Even if he is not among the demonstrators, he agrees with their requests. Before leaving he offers me an advice that should I happen to get into a crowd of demonstrators, I shouldn´t panic and go against the current of the crowd.
Unexpectedly he offers me a green vest (same as the one worn by the demonstrators), which he has with him just in case. I thank him for his advice. “Perhaps it won´t be so bad” and I leave.
In the Marignan street, where my hotel is located, people run around in green vests. I wanted to stop off for a minute to get a couple of things and go to the Louis Vuitton Foundation - a museum that I have long been looking forward to seeing. That ´minute´ was stretched to 6 hours! When I looked out of my room into the street, demonstrators have started a fire in the middle of the street and hand grenades with gas were flying everywhere.
Around six o´clock in the evening they told me at the reception that the situation has calmed down and that I can finally go out. I wanted to look into the Ritz for the first time ever with my girlfriend who lives in Paris. I was advised to get a taxi at Avenue Montaigne.
By walking very fast, I found myself in front of the - now closed - restaurant Avenue, where from behind the corner ten policemen run out with shields and clubs. They meet stones viciously thrown by protesters who were waiting in the street of Francois I.
Instinct finally made me to turn the corner from where the police rushed out. I managed to catch an older, elegantly dressed gentleman by a sleeve, who has been, as me a minute ago, running into the unknown, straight toward the shower of stones, into the epicentre of the demonstration, which moved from Champs-Élysées to the surrounding streets and was not over as was thought at all!
Somewhere near the YSL boutique with a broken window we have, together with this gentleman, terrified to death, tried to hide from the stones in the door entry of the building. When the police began to retreat away from the protesters, my new acquaintance panicked and began chaotically to ring the bells of the flats above so that someone would let us in. I have "calmed him down" by saying that it is futile and that people in the apartments will not want to open the door to a stranger when they know what is going on outside.
The retreating police advised us to move closer to the Arc de Triomphe, where in their opinion the situation was calmer. Along the way we met several frightened tourists who could not get into their hotels because of the street fights.
I swear I will never forget this face of Paris! I couldn´t resist and started to make a video recording. People in the green vest who sat around nodded kindly when they saw that I´m shooting the scene. Several of them made a compliment. As if these were not the same people who were throwing stones just a minute ago! Perhaps they wonder why I´m here all by myself. When I remembered the broken shopping windows of designer boutiques, I have turned my handbag so that the logo of the well-known French brand wouldn´t be seen. I did not wish to unnecessarily provoke them.
I am trying to return to my own hotel, but in vain, my path is crossed by yet another brawl of the police and protesters. The police are throwing gas bombs and receives a response in the form of flying stones. I have no choice but to go back to the Arc de Triomphe. Perhaps I will have a better luck there and see a free taxi… but there are none…
I wander the streets for half an hour more and finally I have a bit of luck and see a green taxi light. "Ritz please..."
When I get off at Place Vendome, I stop in front of the Ritz Hotel. I have a feeling that I am in a completely different city. Incredible contrast - there is peace here, no demonstrators nor the police, instead there are very tall, decorated Christmas trees. I am going to the legendary Hemingway bar, where I am awaited by my worried girlfriend. It definitely calls for a cocktail…
After one hour of my talking we remember that we have tickets to Moulin Rouge. I prefer to call them if it´s on despite the riots. The box office lady assures me that they are far from the demonstration and despite it all the "show must go on...".
The next morning I look from my taxi to the airport at the broken shopping windows of luxury boutiques at François I. avenue, where only yesterday I could have been hit by the protester´s stones...