PARIS - With the French back from summer vacation, the yellow vest movement is vowing to turn this month into a "black September" of protests. But there was little sign Saturday of the massive crowds that shuttered shops and disrupted France's economy and politics not so long ago.
"We're here, we're here," some in yellow vests sang, crossing a busy street as cars screeched to a halt. "Even if [President Emmanuel] Macron doesn't like it, we are here."
And so they were. But they counted in the thousands, not tens of thousands like before. At the Champs-Elysees, once a no-go zone on Saturdays, riot police vastly outnumbered a small group of yellow vests defying a ban to protest there. Stores once protectively boarded up against rioters were open and packed with tourists.
A couple of miles away, a scrum of yellow vests waited on a corner for others to join them. Their small group had splintered earlier in their march, which authorities had approved. Police who might have clashed with them not so long ago helped them find the whereabouts of lost members.
"My name is Antoine,” one marcher said. “I'm an engineering student in the center of France. We just come here to show some support to people who come here every weekend — to try to show people that everything is not yet over."
The protests were bigger elsewhere in France, where police clashed with crowds of yellow vests. But overall, the movement is a lot smaller and a lot quieter than before.
One protester in Paris named Eric admitted he was disappointed by the turnout, but he said he thought things would gather steam again. Another yellow vest, Laurent Come, also said he thought the movement wasn't over, pointing to the violence in towns like Rouen and Montpellier on Saturday. “We're too nice,” he added. “We need to cause mayhem to be heard.”
Since it started nearly a year ago, the grass-roots movement for economic justice has presented Macron's government one of its biggest challenges to date. The French president held a national debate to find answers to the discontent. After hitting rock bottom, his approval rating has inched up.
A yellow vest protester named Malika believed the movement had made a difference, just by bringing people together to talk about issues and propose solutions.
The government is now discussing unpopular pension reforms, which may again drive French to the streets.