Demonstrators of the French "yellow vests" (gilets jaunes) movement gather on the Champs Elysees avenue at the end of a protest in Paris on December 22nd. Photo: AFP
A series of anti-semitic and violent incidents disfigured “Act Six” of the protests yesterday, which attracted less than 40,000 supporters nationwide. This was just one in seven of those who turned out for Act One on 17 November.
A group of gilets jaunes stood on the steps leading to the Basilique du Sacré Coeur in Paris, singing a song and making a sexual arm-gesture, which have been popularised by the anti-semitic comedian, Dieudonné.
Another group of gilets jaunes insulted a Jewish Auschwitz survivor who complained when they made the same gesture, the “quenelle”, in the Paris Metro.
A police motor-cyclist drew his gun to protect himself and two colleagues when they were savagely assaulted by a group of gilets jaunes (see image above) – possibly urban anarchists rather than “real” gilets jaunes – just off the Champs Elysées. An effigy of President Emmanuel Macron was beheaded at a yellow vest demonstration in Charente. There were several unpleasant attacks on journalists.
The government spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, said that the incidents revealed the “single face” of the gilets jaunes phenomenon – “cowardly, racist, anti-semitic, putchiste”. He is wrong about that. There is no “single face” of the yellow vest movement.
It has from the beginning attracted support from the apolitical and the anti-political, the sensible and the conspiracy-obsessed, the suffering and the less suffering, the hard left and the racist hard right.
The bulk of “ordinary gilets jaunes”, by my observation, are not racists or anti-semites. They may, by Metropolitan standards, have simplistic political ideas but they are not driven by ready-made, ideological political notions.
They are, however, in danger of being side-lined and exploited by a militant minority of “yellow vests” who become more visible and more powerful as numbers recede on the streets, roads and roundabouts.
One of the strengths of the movement was its rejection of “leaders” and top-down structures. Another strength was its viral spread through social media. Both, predictably, threaten to become its weakness and its downfall.
Moderate or practical gilets jaunes leaders or spokespeople who do emerge are often insulted by other yellow vests or threatened with violence. The movement’s rejection of “main stream media” means that it is vulnerable to absurd conspiracy theories and lies peddled by the alt-right, the ultra-left and, no doubt, Russian-generated propaganda.
Anti-semitic and hard-right “entryism” has been obvious from the beginning. Dieudonné, a serially convicted anti-semite, appeared beside, Mathieu Seurot, one of the principle figures of the movement in the south west, as early as November 19th. A placard which appeared briefly last week on a gilet jaune held roundabout in the south was stuffed with anti-semitic and anti-masonic references including the letters “SS”.
There have also been crude attempts to harness the movement by the ultra-left, including the “establishment hard left” in the form of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party, La France Insoumise.
It has been apparent for several weeks that the gilets jaunes movement is likely to split into two wings – or at least two wings. One group, under the banner “Gilets Jaunes Libres” is considering running candidates in the European elections in May. Another, more militant group, La France en Colère (Angry France) has become intoxicated by its own propaganda. It believes that it can bring down President Macron and the constitution of the Fifth Republic by street protests alone.
One of the leaders of this group of yellow vests, Eric Drouet, a 33 years old truck driver from Melun east of Paris, was arrested in Paris yesterday. He is accused of carrying a concealed weapon, a cosh or truncheon. His supporters say that the weapon was planted by police.
The yellow vests have wide public support. This is already receding and could begin to collapse after the disgraceful incidents on Saturday. Anti-semitism exists in France on both the right and left but holocaust denial and Jew-baiting rings loud alarm bells in the majority of the population.
France loves a rebellion but the great majority of French people are ultimately repelled by political violence.
The Macron government would clearly love to rebrand the whole of the gilets jaunes movement as extremist and anti-democratic. Hence the exaggerated “one face” accusation by the government’s spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux yesterday.
The gilets jaunes have already scored great successes. They raise genuine grievances about the unjust treatment of people on the regional and social “periphery” of France. They could go on to become a healthy, permanent addition to French democracy.
On the other hands, they could consume and discredit themselves in racism, violence and ridiculous conspiracy theories. It is time for the main body of gilets jaunes to get behind leaders – yes leaders – who will repudiate the ideologically-driven thugs in yellow vests. It may already be too late.