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Thugs, racists, anarchists or mostly ordinary folk? Who are France's 'yellow vest' protesters?

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Thugs, racists, anarchists or mostly ordinary folk? Who are France's 'yellow vest' protesters?
Photo: AFP
13:11 CET+01:00
France's "yellow vest" fuel protesters have been labelled as "thugs", "anarchists", "racists" and "extremists", but that doesn't paint a fair picture of the highly-visible people who have been manning the barricades for the last four days.
Over the last four days of the grassroots "yellow vest" protests around France academics, journalists and indeed our readers have been arguing over who exactly are these highly-visible French people who have built barricades across roads and motorways prompting ugly stand-offs with riot police?
 
Several shocking incidents involving the yellow-vest wearing demonstrators have muddied the waters and influenced people's views.
 
 
The images of protesters clashing with French riot police, banging on the roofs of cars or blocking vehicles carrying elderly people or young children  and burning motorway tolls also gave ammunition to those who suggest the movement is being dominated by violent extremists on the left and right.
 
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"The #GiletsJaunes movement, a leaderless rebellion made of a disparate group of angry anarchists, extreme rightists & leftists, and whose rallying cry is the very Gallic: "I have had enough" is the first real test for Macron’s government," tweeted French writer Agnes Poirier on Monday. 
 
 
The fact France's far right and far left leaders Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon have both backed the movement hasn't helped.
 
While some of the The Local's readers who were caught up in the roadblocks have denounced those who blocked their path as "thugs" and called the protests "mob rule" and "complete anarchy".
 
"I was caught up in this at the weekend. Had people hitting my car roof and kicking the side panels. Not impressed by these thuggish idiots," said one reader on our Facebook page.
 
But militant action has long been a key part of French protest culture.
 
Whether it's taxi drivers, rail workers, farmers or college students, protesters like to put on a show and cause as much disruption as possible. What might appear anarchistic and loutish, such as burning barricades and clashes with police, is often just how these protests roll in France. 
 
 
While it's clear the yellow vests have some unsavoury people among their ranks, like all major protest movements, it would be wrong to dismiss all those who donned their high-vis vests as extremists. 
 
"We know that extremists are among the protesters," Louis Maurin, director of France's Observatory of Inequalities told Le Monde.
 
"This ends up making a lot of problematic cases, but be careful not to reduce the "yellow vests" to an extremist movement. They are a small minority in a coalition of people from different social backgrounds and opinions."
 
The reality is there are many ordinary French people among the protesters who have never taken to the streets before. And while the protests may have given the feel of anarchy, given they were spontaneous and often leaderless, it doesn't mean those taking part were anarchists.
 
 
 
"Yellow Jackets contain many thousands of people not previously involved in demos and politics - not just extremes and anarchists," said The Local's columnist John Lichfield on Twitter.
 
"I didn't see many anarchists on Saturday but lots of pissed off people from outer suburbs where public transport is poor."
 
A Tweeter named Hamish Macdonald who joined the yellow vest protests said: "Among the large numbers I stood in solidarity with for 7 hours blocking a roundabout on the approach to a town in Southern France not one could be described as extreme left or right or anarchist. Ordinary people feeling the pinch and deeply disillusioned with Macron."
 
 
One French regional news site described those taking part in a roadblock as "retired, the unemployed, farmers, they are between 18 and 70 years, sometimes older, they are men, women, living in towns or in the countryside".
 
There is no "type" the newspaper argued except those who are united by a "concern for the gloom they are facing". 
 
"Do not look for a driving force," said Bernard Vivier, director of the Higher Institute of Labor. "Like the Red Hats (Bonnets Rouges) a few years ago, it's a disordered movement that comes from the grassroots, outside the organized structures of trade unions and political parties."
 
The Bonnets Rouges were an anti-eco tax movement whose protests forced the French government to drop its controversial eco-tax plan back in 2014.
 
For some, the rising fuel prices have merely provided an excuse for people living in rural areas to voice their growing frustrations. 
 
"The question of fuel is just a trigger," Alexis Spire, research director at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), told AFP. 
 
According to him, "there is also a geographical dimension that plays an important role. Populations living far from major urban centers or relegated to the bottom of the social ladder have a sense of fiscal injustice. 
 
"There was the reform of the judicial map, with court closures, then the reform of hospitals, with maternity closures ... Some residents feel neglected by the authorities. And then there is a problem of visibility of what the tax is for: the tax is treated only as a levy, without taking into account the achievements it makes possible ".
 
Priscillia Ludosky, one of the founders of the movement, stresses that the movement is not about politics but rather about ordinary people who are struggling to make ends meet. 
 
“They [the government] are under-estimating how strongly people feel and how much our movement is growing every day,” she said. “They are judging us by the way that politics usually works in France. But we are not about politics as usual. That is what defines us. That is the whole point.”
 
But the problem the "yellow vests" face is that the more radical and militant their protests become they are likely to use lose the support of the ordinary folk and they could just be left with the extremists.
 
 
 
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