220.Viaduc de Millau2Gluttons for punishment, my kid and I headed to Montpellier on Sunday to visit a retailer not found in Carcassonne nor even in Toulouse. While shops in France usually are closed on Sundays, they open on the three or four Sundays before Christmas. Add to that the fact that only semi-trucks carrying refrigerated goods are allowed on the autoroutes, and Sunday seemed ideal.

From the start, things went wrong. I stopped to buy gas and put air in the tires before getting on the autoroute. The station had been flooded in October, and I hadn’t been back for a while, what with the roads out and detours. Turned out it was closed for renovations. No other gas stations before the autoroute, but, hey, no problem, the tank was almost full; my itsy bitsy car needs only about a half a tank to make the 300-kilometer roundtrip.

We would park at the shopping mall with said retailer, then take the tram to the city center, to avoid having to drive all over the place. I finally got a phone with a GPS, so I  didn’t need to write out the directions from Mappy. Such luxury.

We sang Christmas carols and admired the moody, haunting countryside on the way. It looked almost like shan shui paintings at the Musée Cernuschi in Paris. The light rain swathed a gray veil over the winter greenery. So different from summer’s parched brown palette, with its sharply defined shadows captured by Cézanne.

218.Viaduc de Millau
Le Viaduc de Millau, the world’s tallest bridge, taller than the Eiffel Tower. It’s on the A75, which is toll-free except for crossing the bridge, which is about €10 for cars.

After we joined the A9 autoroute northbound, warning signs appeared: car on the side of the road. Then, A75 (a different autoroute) obligatory exit. I wasn’t sure what that meant. That the folks going on the A75, which starts around Béziers and heads to Paris, had to take a certain exit? We continued.

We came to realize that it meant the A9 was closed and all traffic was being detoured to the A75. No problem, I thought. We have a GPS!

We followed the other cars, winding around to the tollbooths. All but three were closed, so the lines were long. And they were swarming with gilets jaunes, or yellow vests. They made a big show of “guiding” cars through the piles of tires and pallets that were burning. The tarmac was a mess, having melted and been churned up by previous fires. Gendarmes stood, bouncing from one foot to another to keep warm in the drizzle, but not interfering. A huge tree in the center of the roundabout after the tollbooths was uprooted.

Why?

I’ve read unflattering comparisons between the gilets jaunes and the women’s march in Washington and Black Lives Matter protests. But the women’s march and BLM didn’t set things on fire or uproot trees. There might be bad actors attracted to any demonstration, ready for an excuse to wreak havoc. The folks at the autoroute exits didn’t seem like the casseurs who made a mess in Paris, even though it doesn’t seem like the casseurs were the ones who devastated the tollbooths. The yellow vests seemed intent on getting even with somebody, anybody, for attempts to wean them off their cars, which were parked on the side of the road and festooned with yellow–mostly SUVs. They made a big show of being gentil, kindly directing the traffic mess that they had created.

There’s an argument that the autoroutes were constructed with tax money, and so they should be free. The protesters don’t like that there’s a toll, and that it’s collected by a private company that maintains the autoroute (and also sends out vans to accident sites and cars that have broken down on the side of the road, etc.). For the most part, the autoroutes in France are as smooth as a baby’s bottom, and the speed limit is 130 kilometers an hour–80 mph. The argument is that the toll is higher than needed for maintenance, and anyway there shouldn’t be a toll at all. (For about 90 kilometers on Sunday, I paid €7.80; to cross France north-south costs about €60 in tolls.)

Of course, the militant drivers would not like it if the autoroutes were more crowded than they already are. Sometimes in summer, the A9, which hugs the Mediterranean coast from Spain up to Nîmes, before plunging into the center of France, is a long parking lot of cars from all over Europe, full of vacationers hoping to get to the beach before their cars overheat. Periodic suggestions for surge pricing further enrage people, though I’d be the first to drive at a weird time to have less traffic AND pay less. But having different prices is seen as undemocratic. The protesters have also destroyed roadside radars–every single one we passed was knocked down–because they ruin the fun of speeding.

222.Viaduc de Millau4
Millau, which we managed not to see. This is from a different day.

Our brilliant (not) GPS (actually we used two–Waze and Maps–with identical results) advised us to go on, then had us double back at the first roundabout. “We’ll probably get on in the other direction,” my kid surmised. Nope. Cars were getting off the autoroute, but roaring fires kept anybody from getting on in any direction.

We finally got away again. We ignored the GPS and followed the signs to Agde, planning to take back roads up to Montpellier. But eventually it wasn’t so clear where to go. We listened to the GPS. Bad idea. We turned this way and that and ended up on another divided highway (with no way to make a U-turn) when we passed the same Cactus Park we’d seen half an hour earlier. Indeed, soon we were back at the burning barricades of the roundabout from hell.

My kid informed the GPS yet again that the autoroute was blocked (feedback is how they know about problems) and we tried yet again to find a detour. We went through some charming little towns, but you get no photos because my kid said it wouldn’t be fair to show them in the rain when they must be even prettier in the sun.

We eventually did make it to Montpellier, 2.5 hours late. The mall was a bust. It was just like any mall you would find in the U.S. except it was open to the sky. This usually would be a plus, but we were there on one of the few days a year of rain. Just nine days before Christmas, a few people hurried by. There were no lines for the changing rooms.

We ditched the idea of taking the tram to the city center and decided to just get home. Looking over the routes suggested by the GPS, we chose the detour on the A75, which hooked up with the A9 at a point beyond the disastrous barricades we’d encountered earlier.

We soon were climbing through hills on the outskirts of Montpellier. Disconcertingly, the signs told us we were going toward Millau (not on our way) and Clermont-Ferrand, which is just about in the center of France and much more of a detour than we’d bargained for. My car started beeping that we were almost out of gas, but we didn’t see a single service station.

225.Viaduc de Millau7
 The view from the viaduct. Gorgeous, even in the rain.

The scenery was gorgeous, though, a different kind of rugged than what we were used to. And the church steeples were a different shape. It’s funny how you notice regional traits, like the way cousins might have the same nose.

My kid asked the GPS to take us to a gas station. That worked out well, and we got a pannetone as a gift (from Italian gas chain Agip).

The GPS led us back to the A9, with promises of Narbonne and home. This entry, too, had a long line of cars being filtered by yellow vests, and fires burning and destruction all around. A few minutes later, the skies opened and it poured as if to set sail to Noah’s ark. Good, I thought, that will send the yellow vests home. But on arrival at Carcassonne, they were huddled under the roof of the toll station, collecting the toll tickets, as if giving us a present for having destroyed the barriers and letting us pass for free. I handed mine over, but as I pulled away I yelled expletives at them, horrifying my kid. But it made me feel better.

 

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32 thoughts on “A Bridge Too Far

  1. So interesting to read this, having used those Vinci toll routes a number of times and seeing a different (and much more focused) version of the “gilets jaunes.” I’ve tried to respect the part of this protest that expressed frustration with rising costs, the difficulty of making ends meet in the middle class, and to balance that against my own frustration that attempts to combat climate change (via carbon taxes) seem everywhere to be foiled by our collective individual wish to maintain and/or improve a comfortable lifestyle that is ultimately unsustainable for the planet. Pointing at the SUV gas-guzzlers and the protesters wish for continued or increased subsidization of fast, well-maintained roads really resonates with me. As does the image of your little car on its fuel-efficient adventure.
    (A few years ago when our rental car –with fewer than 100 kms on the dial!–stopped working on the way back to Paris from St. Etienne, a tow-truck came out to bring us about 30 kilometres to his garage. He contacted the car rental company on our behalf (we left the car behind with him, just a bit anxiously) and arranged for the cab to drive us into Lyon where we picked up another rental. All of that service, we were astonished and grateful to learn, was paid for via that contract we’d entered when we took our little ticket out of the machine to pass onto the toll road.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I respect protests, but not the destruction. Complaints about higher taxes on diesel are kind of like smokers complaining about higher taxes on cigarettes. But why break the toll booths? Do they think that Vinci’s executives are going to say, oh, sorry, we’ll give up our salaries and repair the damage and not only not raise the tolls but cut them. Uh….non! All the damage is going to cost tax money and private money. The protests grew into a broader complaint about a squeezed middle class (prices have barely risen overall, though butter, meat and cheese do seem more expensive and must be offset by other things that have gotten cheaper), and yes taxes have gone up. And yes people are disgusted to hear about ministers like Cahuzac, who cracked down on taxes only to evade them himself. But the solution is to make the rich pay rather than evade, not to break things or ruin commerce for small shopkeepers. The other thing is that some changes, like the Internet and all things online and automation, are beyond France’s control but are making a lot of people feeling expendable.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. absolutely agree, and I do hope my comment made that clear. I see much hypocrisy and, frankly, selfishness, in the protests — when I said I was trying to respect the protests, I meant I was trying to respect that there might be genuine difficulties I wasn’t grasping, but like you, I abhor the use of destruction and — frankly– terror to assure “middle-class comforts.” (Especially when I suspect these same protestors are much less concerned about those lower in the socio-economic strata . . .

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        1. Yes, I know what you mean. And I didn’t mean to sound self-righteous about my little car. I have it because it’s cheap. I feel guilty every time I use it, and while I do try to group errands to reduce trips, I don’t do it enough. Also I wish we had a safe, car-free bike route to use on the nice days.

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  2. Sound like an odyssey to the Odyseeum?? I really wonder if the gilets have for one moment thought about who will be footing the bill for all the destruction along the motorways. Somehow I doubt it very much. Protest yes (it’s one of the things that the French are good about), but do it intelligently. I can totally understand that you let rip at them at the end of it!

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    1. Yes, the Odysseum. I was underwhelmed, but it might have been due to the overall stress. And yes, protests are fine, even if I think a carbon tax is necessary, but as you point out, we are going to pay for the damages. All of us.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A carbon tax that’s levied on something involved in the process seems fair to me – If people used more public transport and not made useless journeys they could be better off. People who may be hurting are the ones who have to travel far to go to work, but they could be saving on rent by living out in the sticks. I think most people are unable to do basic maths these days…

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        1. It goes with all the subdivisions being built farther and farther out. How can it stop? The land farther out is cheaper, and the current owners want to get the windfall from developing it. The mayors want their towns to grow because they get paid based on population. But once the farmland is covered with houses, it can’t be farmed again.

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  3. Accckkk! What a headache!

    I can understand protests, but not destruction.

    I can accept toll roads, as long as it’s not excessive. There’s a toll highway here that I would not use- not because I object to the polls, but because a previous provincial government basically sold it off to a foreign consortium for a century that gets away with zero accountability and draconian rights to demand money. I’ve had a friend who got zinged by them- despite never once being on that highway.

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  4. Our experiences were not quite so extreme, but it was a bit frightening. There was the possibility of violence, the suppressed anger. Don’t the gilets jaunes realize that they, with everyone else will be paying for the cleanup.
    Ali

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    1. These weren’t frightening, beyond the fact that they had destroyed so much property. They weren’t threatening people–far from it, they were all jolly, as if it were a big party. But I’m mad about the destruction, the time lost and the gas wasted on detours.

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  5. As a Frenchman, I am ashamed by the idiotic gilets jaunes.
    They say that they do all this mess “for their children” without understanding they are just increasing the debt that these children will have to pay in the future.
    The French economy lost billions of euros because of them and this will increase unemployment.
    They think that France is an “ultra capitalist” country when the rest of the world see us as a nearly socialist country… (48 % of mandatory levies, 1rst in Europe).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some of the gilet jaune sympathizers I know are not worried about the future. “I’ll be dead then,” they say. They don’t want their comforts, like their big diesel cars that they bought because diesel was supposed to be cheaper, taken away.
      Another thing is that people are still buying Christmas presents–online. That behavior isn’t going to stop when the protests do, so count on more empty storefronts.
      Destroying the radars–how is that anticapitalist? If you don’t want a speeding ticket, respect the speed limit. Easy. Things like attacking the radars undermine the argument that this is an outcry about economic hardship. And repairs are going to hurt the economy going forward.
      All that said, I totally agree with the GJ that the middle class taking the squeeze. France does an admirable job of helping the poor, but the rich manage to offshore their wealth. Look at how many French people were cited in the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers. Look at Cahuzac. But who is out protesting for better tax collection? Better tax collection usually means cracking down on the artisans who get paid in cash. But you’d need an awful lot of plumbers, who aren’t declaring in the hundreds or thousands, to make up for one Dassault, Arnault or Annaud. https://www.lemonde.fr/paradise-papers/article/2017/11/08/jean-jacques-annaud-et-le-systeme-des-trusts-les-nouvelles-revelations-des-paradise-papers_5211773_5209585.html

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  6. What a day! Faced with similar I think I might have uttered a few expletives too. How frustrating to be sure. I like that you chose to show the lovely things you saw along the way and not give more face time to the yellow vests”.

    Regarding colorful expletives: I was enlisted in the Navy (early 70s) and had heard them all as well as all their combinations. Yet, with all of that, I remember the first time I/we heard Dear Little Mother let off with an F-Bomb. All four of we siblings exploded in shock with, “MOTHER!” We never heard her say it again and laughed about if for years. Surprising? Sure, but we get over it. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a boss who never met an expletive she didn’t like. She was great. I also had a co-worker who never, ever uttered the smallest gros mot. However, one day in a meeting a different (stupid) boss came up with a particularly stupid idea, and she snapped her pencil in half, with a tight non-smile on her face. Not a word, just that crack. The stupid idea was shelved. Sometimes the greatest power is quiet.

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  7. I have been reading about the gilets jaunes and I wonder if they are being manipulated.

    My mother had a stroke in her later years. It impaired her speech. I tried so hard to understand what she was trying to say and for the most part I could understand. But, one day she was trying to tell me something and I did not understand. She got so frustrated she said the F-bomb as clear and concise as you please. I think even she was shocked. We all laughed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder, too, about manipulation. How can people still be getting info from Facebook? But almost everybody has a gripe about the way things are run, and the protests have turned into a free-for-all of random discontent. Not sure that is manipulated.
      I feel for your mother. It must have been so frustrating. I’m glad you all got a laugh.

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  8. Your experience is a template for mine just about every time I try to go anywhere and get anything done. You always get a bit more than you bargain for in traffic, protests, accidents and what not — then less when you reach your destination. As for the GJ – I am very angry, as I think are a lot of people by now, by the actions of this minority group. What gives them the right to destroy public property, to make demands? It is time for a government crackdown on this behaviour. Hope they get a visit from le Père Fouétard! 😤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Are they the minority? I certainly see far fewer yellow vests on dashboards, and I always suspected many of them were there just to get through barricades quickly. But the news reports claim that 66% to 84% of the French are sympathetic to the the protests.

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      1. I think the recent reports of the destruction wreaked by the movement that we will all have to pay for is resulting a loss of public support. And the latest figure I heard was that the number of people actually active in the movement was only 6%. I was sympathetic at first – but their ‘storm the Bastille’ methods lost my support weeks ago. Bring on the holidays!

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  9. What a horrendous day. I’m impressed that you didn’t give up sooner! We drove from Castelnaudary to Dieppe without any GJ issues but could see evidence of the havoc they have caused… I feel quite overwhelmed by the political situation in the UK and I see that Belgium is having its own (continuing) issues. At times, I feel like digging a big hole into which I can stick my head but of course I won’t. Always love reading your posts but the comments are always very interesting too!

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