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

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.

Thugs, racists, anarchists or mostly ordinary folk? Who are France's 'yellow vest' protesters?
Photo: AFP
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.
“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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Is France’s ‘yellow vest’ movement really on its way back?

Nearly two years since 'yellow-vest' protesters flooded the streets, the signature gilets jaunes have become a rare sight in France. With a comeback announced on September 12th, what is left of the movement that shook France?

Is France's 'yellow vest' movement really on its way back?
Yellow vest protests in Paris in 2019. Photo: AFP

When Priscillia Ludosky put on a yellow vest for the first time and headed out to the Champs Elysées to protest, she had no idea that nearly 300,000 people would do the same.

It was November 17th, 2018, the first 'yellow vest' protest in the capital and the birth of a mass-movement so large that its vows to overthrow French President Emmanuel Macron’s government seemed, for a moment, credible. 

Nearly two years later, Macron is still president – and aiming for reelection – while the ‘yellow vest’ movement has all but disappeared from the public eye.

“It’s been a long time since I wore the yellow vest,” Priscillia Ludosky, founder and leading figure of the movement, told The Local.

She had not left the movement, but said she was less active than she had been.

“I'm less on-the-ground than I used to. The pandemic put the brakes on most things,” she said.

Despite France's rising coronavirus rates, the 'yellow vests' have declared a comeback protest on September 12th, promising to “never give up”.


But with the protests before lockdown gathering only a fraction of the numbers they once rallied, how much is there really left of the 'yellow vests'?

“The movement is much smaller, much less active, and much more divided than it was at the outset,” historian Sylvain Boulouque told The Local.

Boulouque has followed the movement from the beginning and has written the book Mensonges en gilet jaune (Lies in yellow vests), about the role social media and fake news played in fuelling the 'yellow vests' anger.

When the ‘yellow vests’ first spiralled into a national mass-movement, their rallying cry “Macron demission !” (Macron resign) was the one ringing the loudest, and it was also one of the few demands that all of the ‘yellow vests’ could unite behind.

“The movement spans all the way from the extreme-left to the extreme-right. There is no unity on the fundamental political questions,” Boulouque said.

The more time passed, the more the movement's internal divisions became clear. Today, Boulouque said, there was “a little bit of everything” left, and just keeping track of the movement had become a challenge.

“It’s so local that the demographic changes from town to town and week to week,” he said.

Among the extreme right-wing were a number of conspiracy theory believers, he said, including anti-mask activists who opposed the French government's new rules on masks.

Pro- and anti-masks was just the newest fault line dividing the 'yellow vests', Boulouque said.

“The pandemic will split them rather than reunite them,” he said.

‘Covid proved our points’

Seizing on the pandemic to re-mobilise the masses is what the still-active 'yellow vests' hope to do on September 12th.

Leading 'yellow vest' figure Jérôme Rodrigues. Photo: AFP

Jérôme Rodrigues, another ‘yellow vest’ leading figure, told Slate that the pandemic was their “best ally”.

“Covid proved our points about the degrading of the health system and the limits of the capitalist system,” Rodrigues said.

When the French government imposed a nationwide, strict lockdown in March, it was to save the hospitals in hard-hit areas such as Paris from the mounting pressure of a rapidly increasing patient flow. 

The lockdown, which lasted over two months, had a crippling impact on the economy and saw the government spend billions on emergency help schemes to prevent chain bankruptcies and mass layoffs. 

Despite the government's efforts to kickstart the economy, France’s unemployment rate is set to increase by 10 percent by the end of the year. Young people will be the worst affected, according to France’s national institute for statistics, Insee. Rodrigues predicted that the looming downturn would reaffirm people's faith in the 'yellow vest' movement.

“With the coming crisis, people who were doing well financially and who have never had a hard time are going to fall flat on their faces,” Rodrigues said.

'Yellow vest' leading figure Priscillia Ludosky has been participating in protests against police violence and in support of France's hospital sector the past months. Photo: AFP

'Sensationalist media'

Rodrigues became a symbol of the ‘yellow vests’ after he was hit in the eye by what he claimed to be an LBD rubber bullet fired by police (the police refute his accusation, but the authority overseeing the police has launched an investigation into the matter). 

Blinded in one eye, Rodrigues incorporated one of the most jarring features of the protests: their increasingly violent character. The recurring scenes of violence that dominated the protests contributed to the ‘yellow vests’ hogging headlines for months – not just in France, but across the world. 

Images of burning cars, police armed with rubber-bullet guns, violent fist-fights and black-clad protesters smashing ATMs with baseball bats shocked the world. 

But the violence also dominated the media coverage of the protests, which meant what the protesters were saying got less attention.

READ ALSO How the 'yellow vests' made France have a national conversation about police violence

To Ludosky, this was a big problem.

“The media won’t cover anything unless it’s sensationalist,” she said. 

Ludosky authored the online petition that became the catalyst for the ‘yellow vest’ protests. In it, she wrote that the government’s proposed carbon tax was both falsely branded a green policy and was harmful to the many people who depended on their cars to get around every day.

The document went viral and gathered more than one million signatures, and the fluorescent yellow vest that all vehicles in France must be equipped with became the symbol of the masses revolting against the elites.

Ludosky said her main point was lost in the coverage. She was not an angry car-enthusiast defending her right to drive, she was saying that the tax was unfair and would impact the most on the poorest.

“The longer we protested, the more they tried to tell everyone that we don't know what we want. That we were only out there to break things,” she said.

The early days of the movement saw hundreds of 'roundabout protests' in the French provinces. Photo: AFP

'They are there'

The violence also discouraged many of the 'yellow vests' who had little experience with protesting and were shocked by the use of force on both sides.

Danielle Tartakowsky, a professor at the Paris 8 University who specialises in social movements in contemporary France, said it was important to distinguish between the ‘yellow vest’ who still turned up to protests in Paris – often young, keen and ready to go head to head with police – and the ‘yellow vests’ mobilising in less urban areas.

“In the countryside the ‘yellow vest’ movement is the same as it was at the outset,” she said.

In her new book, On est là ! (We’re here), a main ‘yellow vest’ rallying cry, she concludes just that; the movement had changed, but the ‘yellow vests’ were still present.

“That does not mean that they are ready to rally in the same ways, but it would be dangerous and delusional to say that they have disappeared,” she said.

Tartakowsky said that, while the 'yellow vests' successes could seem limited from the outside, they had pushed through important change indirectly by showing that it was possible to force through change.

“Even if they did not win on all points they showed that it was possible to win something, to make the government backpedal,” she said, referring to the carbon tax.

The camp

When the protests started, the roundabout became the main stage for the protesters who did not travel to Paris to make their discontent heard and seen in the capital. 

From June 2019 until March 2020, just before the pandemic hit with full force, Séverine spent most of her free time on a local roundabout where she and some 30 other ‘yellow vests’ had set up a camp.

A teacher in Amiens, a city a couple of hours north of Paris, Séverine was an early believer that the ‘yellow vests’ would be the movement that finally could radically change a system she saw as unjust, undemocratic and unsustainable.

“I passed all my evenings, all my weekends at the camp,” she said.

The camp was a microcosm of the world they hoped to create.

“We cooked together, discussed, we really had some great moments there together,” she said.

They were all kinds of people at the camp; a waiter, a metro driver, a nursery teacher, a few retirees. An Indian student who just needed somewhere to crash for free. 

“It was a very open environment,” Séverine said.

But the problems soon surfaced. The camp, like the movement, swore to a leaderless management style where no one had a final say.

“It was a mess. Obviously, we didn’t manage to make any decisions,” Séverine said.

Violence at protests became a major problem. Photo: AFP

'People are exhausted'

They split themselves into two groups. Oddly enough, the division had little to do with politics.

“It was not about left or right. We actually agreed on the fundamental issues. It was more about strong personalities and people simply not getting along,” she said.

The atmosphere soured. They argued more, discussed less. They went from 30, to 20, to about 10. Then, after the local election in March, just before the pandemic made social distancing the norm, the mayor told them to clear the camp. 

Critics have long said the ‘yellow vests’ lack of leadership was their major, perhaps the decisive, default. How could they push for change when they had no idea what they wanted?

Despite having become so disillusioned with the movement that she no longer knew if she wanted to call herself a ‘yellow vest’ at all, Séverine was not sure this was their main problem. 

“Demonstrating every weekend is tiring. It requires a significant commitment. I think people are exhausted,” she said.

'I was fed up'

In the months that followed the movement’s heyday in early 2019, the protests followed the same pattern as Séverine's camp.

They were increasingly sparse in numbers and the atmosphere increasingly tense and bitter.

“You're walking in a state of complete stress, afraid that someone is aiming at you. You don't hear the messages anymore,” Séverine said.

Five people have lost a hand in the protests. Twenty-five were blinded in an eye. According to government numbers, 2,500 protesters were hurt in the protests by the end of 2019, along with 1,800 police officers.

“No one could imagine that a movement could last this long without losing momentum,” Ludosky said.

“Keeping on going cost a lot to the people who got involved. It's money, time, people lost limbs, couples separated.”

READ ALSO ANALYSIS: French police are not all thugs – they are being placed in an impossible situation

Like many others, she was put off by the violence. In the end, she left her yellow vest in her car.

“I was fed up,” she said. “Every time I wore it I worried about the police controlling me.”

She was not sure if she still believed in the movement.

“It’s complicated. The presidential elections are coming up soon, crying out for Macron’s resignation doesn’t make sense anymore.”

“But the 12th will be the moment to go out on the streets. Not necessarily in Paris, but we need to show something.”