Just days before Christmas, Thibaut Chevillard, a journalist with the French newspaper 20 Minutes, observed a harrowing scene on the Paris metro. A group of drunken gilets jaunes—“yellow vests”—on their way back from protests that have gripped France for the past two months, entered the train and began making the quenelle with their arms. A sort of inverse Nazi salute—one arm pointed towards the ground at an angle while the other hand crosses the chest and touches the shoulder—the gesture was popularized by the notoriously anti-Semitic French comedian Dieudonné over a decade ago. Dieudonné, who now sells neon yellow traffic vests on his website, originally accompanied the salute with a vulgar rewording of the “Chant des Partisans,” a melody from the French Resistance.
Chevillard watched as a 74-year-old woman approached the three men, identified herself as the daughter of an Auschwitz victim, and asked them to stop. They laughed. One claimed that gas chambers never existed. Then they began chanting, “Throw this woman out!” The woman went back to her seat. Nobody stood up for her for fear of a physical altercation, Chevillard later tweeted with guilt, including himself. She got off in silence at the next stop.
Earlier that afternoon, Yahoo News had tweeted a video of a separate group of yellow vests in Montmartre singing la quenelle and making the gesture with their arms. Both sets of gilets jaunes would have been aware of the meaning of the song and the salute. As the French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur wrote, the quenelle “is a coded anti-Semitic hymn, and those who sang it could not be ignorant of that, unless they have spent the past few years on another planet.”
The incidents provoked an immediate backlash from the French political class, and a spate of soul-searching articles in left-wing media about what the yellow vests were becoming. They could have saved their shock, because despite the legitimate economic pain and despair that have been highlighted by the protests, anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories, illiberal politics, and violent insurrectionism have been inextricable from the movement practically from its beginning.
As far back as November 19, there were reports detailing incidents of racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia at the blocked traffic circles where the yellow vests made their stand. But above all, it is the anti-Semitism that has been remarkably constant. In early December, Hervé Lalin, a noted far-right militant anti-Semite, inadvertently made the cover of Paris Match, when he was photographed facing off against a police officer (the magazine later said that nobody on staff had recognized him when it selected the photo). Posters and graffiti declared that French President Emmanuel Macron is “the Jews’ bitch” and “Jewish trash,” that “Macron = Zion,” and that he is guilty of “colluding with the Jews.” These long predated the incident on the metro.
French activism loves the idea of a convergence des luttes, or a “convergence of struggles.” One might say that with the yellow vests, there has been a convergence of conspiracies. These include the relatively innocuous claims that the French government was hacking email accounts, that Facebook was censoring videos, or that the media was reporting fake numbers of protesters. But there have been more noxious claims as well: that France’s constitution had been suspended; that Macron was going to declare a state of emergency and enforce it with troops from the EU (a video viewed three million times claimed the soldiers would be primarily Belgian); and that he was signing over administration of France to the United Nations via the Marrakech Pact on migration, which would open France—population 66 million—up to potentially 159 million migrants.
And within minutes of a terrorist gunman killing three and wounding twelve at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, Facebook and Twitter lit up with speculation from gilets jaunes that it was an inside job by the French government in order to stall the momentum of their movement.
The yellow vests have also displayed an illiberal streak, with members partially blocking the distribution of a major newspaper, Ouest-France, after it ran a critical editorial. They have called for military government and repealing gay marriage. These are just anecdotes, but string enough anecdotes together, and they begin to form the shape of a pattern. And this particular pattern, while often exacerbated by outside forces like RT, Sputnik, and Russian bots, has been nourished by the “leaders” of the yellow vest movement, if that term can be used for such a decentralized campaign.
Maxime Nicolle and Éric Drouet, who administer some of the largest gilets jaunes Facebook groups and have been near nightly presences on French television, have repeatedly shared the most outrageous conspiracy theories. They have also explicitly called for an insurrection: Drouet, in the context of repeated affirmations that the movement wouldn’t end until Macron had resigned, called on live television in December for the gilets jaunes to “enter inside” the Élysée Palace. Weeks later, he was arrested during a Paris protest for carrying an illegal firearm.
On January 1, Nicolle predicted “an armed national uprising.” This too was nothing new; he’s been saying as much since November 5. Then there are the litany of yellow vest leaders who, in appearance after appearance on television, personally dissociate themselves from violence, while wringing their hands that, if Macron doesn’t accede to their demands and resign, tout ça va mal se terminer, or “everything will end badly.” This weekend, the protesters again gave a glimpse of what that might mean, clashing with police and breaching a ministry building.
To be clear, there is no impending redux of the French Revolution. France has no tyranny to overthrow, no dictator or king to depose. It has the same grab-bag of problems that most of its Western European neighbors face. And while authoritarianism rises in Hungary and Poland, while Brexit is about to break Britain, while Donald Trump undermines every institution of American government, France has so far largely escaped the worst of populism and its discontents.
But there is a challenge to the left in particular, in the nature of the gilets jaunes, in the violence that has been an undeniable reason for their success, and in the undesirable voices that have come to the fore: How to balance empathy for economic hardship and a genuine desire for social justice with a rejection of the worst impulses of a movement that finds its shape in organized chaos? How to protest Macron’s reformist centrism while also defending the pillars of liberal democracy and a tolerant society?
Unfortunately, this is a challenge the main left-wing opposition has largely failed to meet, a balance it has refused to strike. Just as populists see “the people” as something pure in the face of corrupt elites, so, too, do certain elites desire for there to be an essential purity in the idea of an uprising of the alienated masses—the “neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls,” as Hannah Arendt once described them.
First, the gilets jaunes have always been inseparable from far-right politics. Supporters of Marine Le Pen have the most favorable views of the yellow vests, and a hypothetical gilets jaunes party would sap significant support from Le Pen in the upcoming European parliamentary elections.
But while one might expect the far-right to flourish in the midst of fake news and diffuse anger, significant parts of the left have responded to the idea that Macron is an “ultra-neoliberal”—so much so that they have chosen to be a sidecar to the destabilizing agenda of the far-right. Jean-Luc Mélenchon—leader of the far left La France Insoumise, or Insubmissive France—expressed in a long Facebook post his “fascination” with Éric Drouet, saying of the gilets jaunes that “their rising, their incredible aptitude for combat, bewilders those who look down at the people from on high.” Mélenchon compared him to the historical Jean-Baptiste Drouet who recognized Louis XVI as he attempted to flee Paris, leading to the king’s arrest in Varennes.
In a section of her On the Origins of Totalitarianism that deals with the elite’s fascination for the mob, Arendt writes, “The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.... The temporary alliance between the elite and the mob rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability.”
At the roundabouts there is camaraderie and comfort, conspiracy and chaos. Neither half of that equation can be ignored. But how sad that, like the far right, a chunk of the left has become fascinated by the mob, choosing to pull bricks out of the wall in the hopes of climbing the rubble to political gain.