France’s ‘yellow vest’ protesters

The gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, are part of a grassroots citizens’ movement that began over rising fuel prices, but has since grown into something larger.

The yellow best protesters have staged some of the most comprehensive protests seen in France since 1968, but who are the people making up the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vest) movement?

 

The protesters, thus named because they sport the distinctive yellow high-visibility jackets required to be carried in every vehicle by French law, initially came together to demonstrate against a sharp increase in diesel taxes.

Made up, at first of mainly the working class or those struggling to keep up with the increasing prices in France, they have transformed from a group fighting fuel rises into a far right movement with anti-sematic values.

 

How do they organise themselves?

Its members have mainly got themselves organised on social media, via online groups and Facebook pages, and have acted through petitions, videos and calls to action.

As the movement grew, they have also met physically to get organised, in meeting rooms, supermarkets or at petrol stations.

On the ground, they have arranged themselves to ensure a constant presence at roadblocks around the country.

Many attend before or after work, take leave or go on their day off; rotas have been organised according to protesters’ availability to maintain cover.

 

From fuel, to fuelling hate

Last weekend, on 16 February, the gilet jaunes targeted philosopher and writer Alain Finkielkraut because he is Jewish.

Philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was subjected to anti-Semitic abuse

This came after two Parisian post boxes painted with the image of Simone Veil, one of France’s greatest political figures – and also Jewish – were defiled by swastikas.

A small group of protesters shouted a barrage of abuse at him as he passed by the demonstration on his way home from lunch on Saturday, calling him a “dirty Zionist” and telling him to “go back to Tel Aviv”.

“I felt an absolute hatred,” Mr Finkielkraut told one French newspaper later that night. “If the police hadn’t been there, I would have been frightened.”

A few days before that, official data suggested there had been a 74% rise in anti-Semitic attacks in France last year.

President Macron tweeted that it was “the absolute negation of what we are and what makes us a great nation”.

Now, many here are questioning whether the gilets jaunes movement is providing a new kind of forum for these extremist views, and how central those attitudes are to the movement.

“It’s very serious,” says Vincent Duclert, a specialist in anti-Semitism in France at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences – one of France’s most prestigious colleges.

“The gilets jaunes are not an anti-Semitic movement, but alongside the demonstration each Saturday there’s a lot of anti-Semitic expression by groups of the extreme right or extreme left.”

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