It’s been a humbling week for French President Emmanuel Macron — and the weekend seems primed to demonstrate that his outreach efforts haven’t satisfied the angry “gilets jaunes” protesters who’ve rocked France repeatedly over the past month.
Macron kicked off his week making concessions in an olive-branch-laden speech in prime-time Monday evening. Things then somehow got worse, with a trio of minority parties to his far left forcing a parliamentary debate over the president’s competence. The no-confidence motion never had a chance of unseating Macron. Despite his slack approval ratings, his political party En Marche! has a strong majority in the Assembly, and no French president has stepped down voluntarily since Charles De Gaulle’s proposed overhaul of government was rejected by voters in 1969.
But with La France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Melenchon openly calling on the protesters to continue sowing civil unrest across the country and capital city for a fifth weekend, and right-wing leaders both inside and outside France also seeking to claim credit for the protests, Macron’s grip on legitimate rule is growing sweaty. The protesters’ success in wringing a response from him has made them a hot ticket — and generated a wave of attempts to ally this or that political ideal to the people in the streets.
“I take my share of responsibility. I know I have hurt some of you with my words,” Macron said in Monday’s televised address, promising a minimum wage increase and saying that the anger that had engulfed France was “deep and in many ways legitimate.”
The left-wing push for a symbolic, mathematically hopeless no-confidence vote Thursday is just one small example of traditional political organizations’ elaborate maneuvering to harness the yellow vests to their own causes.
“We’ve seen political parties of all sides try to piggyback on the movement and project their own views [onto it]. At the moment, the gilets jaunes are trying to stay independent,” Célia Belin of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe told ThinkProgress. “The truth is, it’s mostly a protest of the poorest 20 percent of the French people, in particular outside of Paris: Working class, lower-middle class, low-income pensioners, single moms, people who have to commute, who have all sorts of niche demands.”
Dismissed as Facebook dupes
The overlapping but fragmented nature of the people roused to street action by the gilets jaunes has made the movement vulnerable — not just to people who would co-opt its successes, but to critics who would dismiss it as an illegitimate fake.
A few reporters have already argued that it’s all synthetic, the latest example of Facebook-spawned fake-news panic, a misinformed and willful exploitation of social media contagions. That’s probably too convenient an explanation, as Max Read wrote in New York Magazine recently, in no small part because democracy scholars like Belin say the web is just the organizing vector for sincere and pre-existing conditions of rage.
“Some of the violence and some of the most extremist platforms, or some of the obsessions of some parts of the movement, may be created out of Facebook,” Belin said, noting occasional xenophobic posts about migrants in the broader scrum of gilets jaunes chatter online. She compared the digital component of today’s French street protesters to the web organizing that helped Arab Spring revolutionaries and Ukraine’s Maidan movement, rather than to the fake-news manipulations of modern electioneering.
“[T]he general discontent on the social situation, that has been long brewing. When people say it’s only a Facebook movement — if it were, it would [not have such support],” Belin said. “The fact that today there are two Frances, the France that wins and the France that loses? That makes people unhappy, and they lend their support to a movement like this.”
Inasmuch as the movement is viewed as simply a more violent version of Occupy Wall Street, then, the left’s wielding of it to trouble the moorings of Macron’s legitimacy may be sound. But the left isn’t alone in trying to claim the yellow vests’ mantle.
“Yellowjackets” and right-wing hijackers
The French chaos is delighting the far political right, too — both across Europe and in U.S.-focused online fever swamps. Where the French and international left see the crumbling of Macron’s centrism as an opportunity to promote more equitable social policies, proto-fascist movements of the international right are claiming the yellow vests as avatars of the same anti-globalist revanchism that empowered Donald Trump.
Both Infowars and Breitbart have reported breathlessly on how the protests prove the failure of Macron’s government. The riots have also been a continued topic of conversation on popular far-right hangouts like 4chan’s /pol/ board and 8chan. On Reddit’s The_Donald, meanwhile, three of this week’s most “upvoted” links involve the protests. They have also been discussed at length on Gab, a notorious hangout for far-right figures online, as well as the more fascist friendly sections of Twitter.
It’s easy to see why the far-right has rallied around the yellow vests. Macron has styled himself as one of the bulwarks against nationalism in Europe after he defeated far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the 2017 French Presidential Election. Since then, he has directly criticized other far-right European leaders, including Italian deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
“I will yield nothing to nationalists and those who advocate hate speech,” Macron said in August. “If they [Salvini and Orban] wanted to see me as their main opponent, they were right to do so.”
But even if Macron hadn’t confronted his nationalist opponents, his personal history and policies make him a perfect target for the far-right and its hatred of globalism. He was previously an investment banker with Rothschild, a multinational investment bank whose name is a common trope in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Macron has also been steadfast in his support for the EU, passed tax cuts that primarily benefit the rich, and in September told an unemployed man he could find work if he “crossed the street.”
Your #MondayMotivation #BenGarrison #cartoon– #TheGreatAwakeningWorldwide #Nationalism can defeat #Globalists #HumanRightsDay Protect your citizens first! #BuildTheWall #FranceProtests #Macron post at https://t.co/HXotMLUzAB pic.twitter.com/0rQLbAnGS5
— GrrrGraphics Cartoons (@GrrrGraphics) December 10, 2018
Despite the far right’s opposition to globalism, their resistance to Macron is made easier — somewhat ironically — by their increased global cooperation, particularly in Europe. This was a factor which the Institute for Strategic Dialogue warned about last year, when they said that “[The far-right] actively seek to overcome ideological and geographic differences for the sake of expanding their influence, reach and impact.”
When the Spanish far-right party Vox won seats in regional elections last weekend for instance, they were congratulated by both Marine Le Pen and Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders. When British far-right activist (and onetime mortgage fraudster) Tommy Robinson was jailed for contempt of court in May, there were solidarity protests for his release in both Hungary and Austria. Former White House chief adviser Steve Bannon has also launched a right-wing foundation called the Movement to help coordinate far-right candidates across the continent. Bannon was on video “rejoicing in the fact that Paris is burning” over the weekend,
“There is a far-right movement of nationalists out there all too happy that the public would be in this stage of discontent,” Belin said. “You have known far-right violent extremists that have infiltrated the movement…. [on social media] far-right accounts are activated and excited and posting fake news and getting riled up about this.”
It is undeniable that sections of the far right are involved with the yellow vest protests, such as during one incident earlier in the month when a white power flag was unveiled at one of the barricades. Marine Le Pen has enthusiastically endorsed the protests, tweeting that they are “indicative of a social, economic, identity and institutional crisis which has been coming for decades.” According to an Al Jazeera investigation, Le Pen’s party, the National Front, has been infiltrated by far-right activists.
However, on the ground, it appears less likely likely that the far-right are dictating the protests, and more that they are exploiting them online to further their own agendas.
“I think it’s people who want to protest violently,” Belin said, “but I don’t think they’re activated by the National Front.”
The misinterpretation of the movement
The protesters themselves have indicated that they are not governed by one political ideology, but instead by an amorphous fury at Macron’s failures. “There was a big range of political views on the same barricade — from leftwingers to ecologists opposed to nationalism to people who had voted for nationalism in the form of Marine Le Pen,” Guardian Paris bureau chief Angelique Chrisafis tweeted. “All said they were united in fury at Macron’s way of running France… they said at home he was alienating so many people that he was pushing people towards populism.”
As right-wing nationalists try to claim the gilets jaunes as their own, and left-leaning climate activists note that the group’s demands include better policies to combat climate change despite the protests’ initial targeting of gas taxes, the international press has initiated its own version of a who’s-who fight over the protesters currently getting the better of Macron.
Bloomberg’s editors have openly asserted that “most” of the protesters “admit they aren’t badly off” economically, in the mark-up of a story by Gregory Viscusi which based the assertion a conversation with a single gilets jaunes activist who said he’s doing fine personally. That deceitful attempt to tar anti-Macron activists as either bourgeois fakers or dangerous far-right nationalists would have readers see the yellow-vested mobilizations as unworthy of sympathy, and imply a stronger level of support for Macron than exists.
The reality is that Macron’s centrist political ideology barely held off two rising flanks of left and right politicking in last year’s election and — the protesters’ triumphs suggest — has only weakened since.
While the capitalists who’ve benefited from the long rule of a banal centrism in U.S. and European politics might prefer to believe that populism isn’t truly at their gates, and that the angry protesters are in fact wealthy enough that the rich can afford to wait until they get bored, that’s a dangerous wager with dishonest underpinnings.
The ideological tug-of-war surrounding the gilets jaunes is only intensifying after Macron’s speech on Monday showed that the street protests had forced a come-down from the president. As with any rapidly mobilized, anger-driven, and leaderless political campaign, the truth of the movement’s makeup appears to be a hodgepodge. Extremist malcontents of both right and left political stripe may have seized on to what’s happening, but some small amount of those mobilizing are newer to the kinds of riotous activism on display the past few weekends in Paris and in cities across France.
Remy Heitz, lead public prosecutor for Paris, said a diversity of characteristics was also on display among those who were arrested after the third round of riotous protests.
The hundreds in custody that Monday included some legitimate yellow-vest activists, but also a cadre of “professional breakers,” Heitz said. Reporters for both France24 and The Guardian reported a diversity of opinion toward the violence from among the protesters in the capital, with some decrying it as unhelpful and others portraying it as justified and necessary to get Macron’s attention.
The city’s police chief, Michel Delpuech, asserted that the populist groundswell has indeed been infiltrated by “more seasoned activists” who relish scrapping with the authorities and smashing property, but said he sees traces of both ultra-left and ultra-right politics in that infiltration of the movement. Journalists and police alike reported seeing some veteran street protesters coaching the more newly activated in their number on how to dismantle barricades and when to hold their positions after police launched tear gas, for example. These more disciplined and experienced clashers appear to come from both far-left and far-right, with anarchist “All Cops Are Bastards” graffiti cropping up and far-right nationalist groups like Action Française and Bastion Social bragging that they’ve sent members to the streets.
If the yellow vests cannot be easily classed in ways convenient to any of the various competing camps eager to claim them, the best course may simply be to screen out all that shouting from afar.
Whoever’s doing the fussing — whether Bannon or Bloomberg or the Twitter activist set — the squabbles over gilets jaunes credit and blame tend to overshadow something simpler that cannot be safely ignored by any political movement, Belin said.
“When you look at the people who got arrested on these Saturdays…the vast majority were first time offenders. They are not your usual delinquents, the most radical who probably get away because they are trained. You also had people who had never taken part in something like this, who unleashed some rage, some violence, and broke stuff. That represents, in my opinion, a bit of the despair that’s behind the movement. I think it’s quite sad,” Belin said, to see “a violence that is not just instrumentalized by fringe groups but that comes out of despair.”
Martin Luther King gave Americans a phrase for that, calling a riot “the language of the unheard.” Belin said she’s heard something similar from friends recently as they scrounge for a proper explanation of the yellow-jacket riots, one more complete than the simplistic right- or left-handed claims on offer from abroad.
“Somebody told me that, after being blind, the government was deaf,” she said. “They were blind to the situation on the ground for too long, and now they have been deaf to the demands of the protesters, and at some point, people will riot.”