Yellow vests' reactionary and populist traits not just a French problem

Defining inclinations of the movement are a clear and present danger to Europe

A rally of the women’s yellow vest protesters (femmes gilets jaunes) near Place de la Bastille in Paris. Photograph:  Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

A rally of the women’s yellow vest protesters (femmes gilets jaunes) near Place de la Bastille in Paris. Photograph: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

 

The gilets jaunes revolt will turn two-months-old this week. It has already done more to disrupt the French political system – a campaign promise of President Emmanuel Macron – than Macron in his first 18 months in office.

Twelve people have died, most in accidents that occurred when motorists tried to run barricades manned by yellow vests. About 1,700 protesters have been injured and a thousand members of the security forces.

Four people have had their hands mutilated by tear gas grenades containing explosives. Sixty have been wounded in the face by rubber bullets, including 12 who lost an eye.

Protesters were less violent but more numerous in “Act IX”of the movement on Saturday, when 84,000 people demonstrated across France.

The fact that police and gendarmes matched the gilets jaunes nearly one-to-one partly accounts for the diminution in violence. Clashes nonetheless occurred at the Arc de Triomphe, in Bordeaux and Toulouse.

Graffiti on a wall that reads “life in yellow” during a demonstration in Rouen, northwestern France. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images
Graffiti on a wall that reads “life in yellow” during a demonstration in Rouen, northwestern France. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

Country dwellers who’ve found fraternité around night time bonfires at traffic circles are the sympathetic face of the gilets jaunes. “Chouchoune” and “Coco bel oeil” wore fluorescent yellow when they married last month, at the traffic circle in the Pyrenees where they met as gilets jaunes.

The revolt is ideologically closest to the far right.

Gratuitous violence, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia are the dark side of the movement that has plunged France into its worst crisis of the past half century.

Like Donald Trump’s grassroots supporters in the US, the gilets jaunes deeply distrust traditional media.

Journalistes, collabos, journalistes, collabos,” they chant in front of television, radio and newspaper headquarters. Journalists are regarded as part of the elite, and as “collaborators” of the Macron administration.

We’re going to drag you out of your car and rape you

Physical attacks on French journalists are so frequent that most hire bodyguards to cover protests.

On Saturday, journalists were attacked in Rouen, Pau, Toulon, and Paris. A bodyguard for LCI television was taken to hospital with a broken nose.

“We’re going to drag you out of your car and rape you,” a demonstrator threatened a woman journalist from La Dépêche du midi in Toulouse.

Yellow vests prefer to believe “news” spread on social media by Maxime “Fly Rider” Nicolle and other conspiracy theorists – for example allegations that non-French, European security forces have been called in to help quash their revolt.

The yellow vests clashed with police in Nimes. The banner reads “The power for the people”. Photograph: EPA
The yellow vests clashed with police in Nimes. The banner reads “The power for the people”. Photograph: EPA

More than 50 parliamentary deputies from Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) have been threatened with hanging, guillotining or shooting. In Dordogne, the cars of an LREM deputy and her husband were torched outside their homes by gilets jaunes.

Jean-François Mbaye, another LREM deputy, received an anonymous letter calling him “a token black” and asking what right an African had “to meddle in French problems”.

The same text was sent to two other Black LREM deputies. “You are going to die,” noted the letter.

Minister for gender equality Marlène Schiappa denounced a crowdfunding campaign for Christophe “le boxeur” Dettinger, who is now in prison awaiting trial for attacking two policemen on a bridge over the Seine.

I’m portrayed as an inflatable doll. There are montages of me half-naked

Schiappa said she received “thousands of death threats, insults and co-ordinated cyber harassment” after criticising Dettinger’s supporters.

“There are calls for rape, filthy rhetoric. I’m portrayed as an inflatable doll. There are montages of me half-naked.”

Gilles Le Gendre, the president of the LREM group in the National Assembly, accused Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far left France Unbowed and Marine Le Pen’s far right Rassemblement National of “competing to take advantage of the chaos, when they’re not fomenting it”.

The yellow vests’s hatred of high finance often translates into anti-Semitism. Just before Christmas, a group of yellow vests were filmed in Montmartre, making the quenelle, a version of a Hitler salute invented by the humourist Dieudonné.

That night, a 74-year-old woman watched three men in yellow vests doing the quenelle in the metro. “That’s an anti-Semitic gesture. I am Jewish. My father died at Auschwitz. Please stop,” asked the woman.

“Get lost, old lady,” shouted one of the men. “This is our country! This is our country!” chanted another, repeating the slogan of Le Pen rallies.

Some fear that France will repeat the Italian scenario of a coalition between populists and the extreme right

Like former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, Macron took office in a burst of optimism. Like Renzi, his approval ratings collapsed and he became a hate figure. The gilets jaunes are closest in spirit to the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) founded in Italy by the comedian Beppe Grillo.

M5S now shares power with Matteo Salvini’s far right Lega. Some fear that France will repeat the Italian scenario of a coalition between populists and the extreme right.

Protesters amid the tear gas near the Arc de Triomphe. Photograph: Reuters
Protesters amid the tear gas near the Arc de Triomphe. Photograph: Reuters

The gilets jaunes are part of an international trend that has recently seen the swearing in of “Trump of the Tropics”, the Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro, and a meeting between Italian strongman Salvini and Polish nationalist Jaroslav Kaczynski. Speaking in Warsaw last week, Salvini promised to “overthrow the (liberal) Franco-German axis”.

Police use a water cannon during a demonstration by the yellow vests movement near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Photograph: Reuters
Police use a water cannon during a demonstration by the yellow vests movement near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Photograph: Reuters

The future of Europe, as well as the future of France, is at stake in Macron’s struggle quell the gilets jaunes. The French leader will publish an open letter on Monday outlining the terms of the “grand debate” he will begin on Tuesday with mayors in Normandy.

The latest polls show tiny rises in the very low approval ratings of the president and prime minister. One might deplore the fact that 52 per cent of respondents want the gilets jaunes movement to continue, but that is a significant drop from November, when close to 80 per cent of the French supported the protests.

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