Yellow vests: protesters fight for ideological ownership | World news


What is not in dispute is who came first. On the French side of the channel lie the original gilets jaunes (yellow vests), a grassroots, social media-based citizens’ movement with no formal structure, recognised leader or party or union backing, named after the hi-visibility jackets that French drivers are required by law to carry in their vehicles.

As French yellow vests kicked off their ninth straight weekend of protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies, a battle for ownership of what has become an symbol of anti-government agitation across Europe has broken out in Britain as leftwing anti-austerity activists donned yellow in a bid to wrestle it from the far-right.

The phenomenon began in France in mid-November to oppose proposed rises in fuel taxes, but has since widened to a range of grievances against Macron (who the demonstrators see as arrogant and out of touch) and his centrist, pro-business government and the establishment in general.

Hundreds of women wearing yellow vests demonstrated in Le Mans, France, on Sunday.



Hundreds of women wearing yellow vests demonstrated in Le Mans, France, on Sunday. Photograph: Jean-François Monier/AFP/Getty Images

The numbers involved – in France hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets – are the most visible difference between the two countries. In Britain, yellow vest protests have ranged from involving a few dozen – including those who blocked Westminster bridge in December – through to the thousands in London on Saturday who joined an anti-austerity protest addressed by figures including the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and which included French jaunes.

Tom Griffiths, an organiser of the People’s Assembly event, said it was not too late for the left to be the dominant force in Britain’s yellow vest movement. He insisted that thousands who rallied in Trafalgar Square – while welcoming both remain and Brexit supporters – vastly outnumbered the hundred who rallied outside St James’s Park tube station under a pro-Brexit banner.

People’s Assembly
(@pplsassembly)

Time to get the Tories Out!! Britain is Broken – General Election Now! Saturday 12 January #GeneralElectionNow #YellowVest #GTTO
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December 13, 2018

But for others such as Mike Stuchbery, a historian and writer who has been monitoring far-right cooption of yellow vests, “the well has already been poisoned” by pro-Brexit and far-right figures such as James Goddard, who was at the centre of controversy over the harassment of MPs and journalists outside parliament. At one point on Saturday, there were clashes in Trafalgar Square between rival yellow vest wearers, with known far-right supporters involved.

As in France, the picture in the UK is muddied by the battle for ideological ownership unfolding on social media platforms including two rival Facebook pages. One, “liked” by more than 2,300 people, is badged around opposing austerity and describes itself as the “official branch of the yellow vests”, while another with 14,000 likes is promoting a “great British betrayal rally” about Brexit and hosts anti-immigration videos.

Protesters in London on Saturday.



Protesters in London on Saturday. Photograph: Ray Tang/REX/Shutterstock

Causes promoted by some yellow vests have included a campaign mounted by Tracy Blackwell, the mother of one of three teenage boys killed by a hit-and-run driver, along with others including suicide among veterans and child abuse.

In France, protesters’ diverse social and financial demands have ranged from the scrapping of the planned fuel tax increase and a hike in the minimum wage (on both of which Macron has conceded, as well as agreeing to a “great national debate” on their concerns) to increased purchasing power, improved public services, the president’s resignation and more direct democracy.

At root, the movement is a protest by France’s forgotten periphery, many living in rural areas or in small and medium-sized towns far from the cities’ wealth.

Outside the big cities, they have mainly gathered peacefully on roundabouts and at partial roadblocks to air their grievances. In Paris and other urban centres, however, protests have taken the form of Saturday demonstrations.

According to the interior ministry, the protests mobilised 285,000 people across the country on 17 November, the gilets jaunes’ first nationwide day of action, declining steadily to 50,000 last weekend. These are not big numbers for French protests: the mass demonstrations of 1995 against former the prime minister Alain Juppé’s liberal reforms drew more than 2 million.

Yellow vest protestors near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France.



Yellow vest protestors near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France. Photograph: Lucas Barioulet/AFP/Getty Images

While dismissive of all established political parties, the movement has attracted the tacit and sometimes overt support of France’s far right and far left. And as often in France, the demonstrations have also attracted not just radicalised supporters of the movement itself, but also violent “casseurs”: extreme rightwing sympathisers, anarchists, vandals and rioters interested mainly in fighting running battles with the police and looting shops.

This explains the sometimes extreme violence seen in the Saturday gilets jaunes protests seen so far, which according to the prime minister, Édouard Philippe, who this week announced measures to crack down on the violence (though not legitimate protest), have so far seen 5,600 people arrested and 1,000 convicted.





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