The Movement of the Yellow Vests (“Gilets Jaunes” in French) was started in the mid-November 2018 as a popular protest against an increase of fuel taxes underpinned by the environmental concerns. The protesters chose to wear high-visibility vests: since 2008, all drivers are required to have these vests in their vehicles. On 17 November, the protests mobilised, according to the Interior Ministry, 282,000 demonstrators throughout France, on 24 November – 106,000 people, on 1 December – 75,000 people, and on 8 December – 136,000 people. At the end of November, public opinion polls showed that the protests were supported by 84% of the French.
Organised in a horizontal and leaderless manner, the Gilets Jaunes protests were extremely heterogeneous, with demonstrators representing the entire political spectrum, from the far left to the far right. This was reflected by the social support for the movement from the majority of sympathisers of all major French parties. 92% of the sympathisers of the far-left “Insubordinate France” found the protests justified or somewhat justified; the same was said by the 90% of the Socialist Party sympathisers, 77% of the Republicans sympathisers, and 96% of the sympathisers of the far-right National Rally. Interestingly, every second sympathiser of the “Republic on the Move!”, the party of President Emmanuel Macron, i.e. the main target of the protests, thought that the protests were justified or somewhat justified.
However, the protests remained largely anti-political: demonstrators refused to be represented by political parties and often frowned upon politicians who wanted to merge with the Gilets Jaunes. Moreover, when leaders of more moderate groups of the Gilets Jaunes agreed to negotiate the planned anti-pollution fuel taxes with the authorities, they were threatened by some other groups in the movement and had to withdraw from negotiations.
The pro-government media highlighted – in a predominantly imbalanced manner – the presence of the ideologically fringe elements at the demonstrations and slammed the protesters as racists, homophobes, beaufs, slackers and illiterates. In other words, the pro-government media pulled the Hillary Clinton stunt and called the Gilets Jaunes movement “a basket of deplorables”.
Within two weeks after the start of the protests, as violence on the part of some groups inside the Gilets Jaunes movement and police spiraled, the demonstrations radicalised and started transforming into something more dramatic. When French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said on 4 December that the planned fuel tax would be put on hold, the Gilets Jaunes protests did not stop. It was no longer the fuel taxes that angered the demonstrators, but rather the ruling political class in general and Macron’s presidency in particular. “Macron demission” (resignation of Macron) became the main slogan of the Gilets Jaunes movement.
The Kremlin‘s political agenda in Russia and abroad
As it often happens with major social upheavals, foreign actors hurried to exploit the protests aiming to further their own political agendas. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is frequently criticised by European leaders for the authoritarian and illiberal trends in Turkey, commented on the developments in France by denouncing the “disproportionate violence” of the French authorities and declaring that Europe had “failed the exam of democracy, human rights and freedoms”. US President Donald Trump, who is infamous for denying climate change, tweeted that the people were protesting and rioting in France allegedly because they did not “want to pay large sums of money, much to third world countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment”.
Russian pro-Kremlin actors presented two interpretations of the Gilets Jaunes movement: one interpretation was aimed at the domestic audience, the other targeted the international one.
The Russian domestic interpretation was arguably best articulated by Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of the Russian Federal State News Agency “Rossiya Segodnya” (Russia Today, not to be confused with RT): the French protests were orchestrated by the US, in the same manner that it orchestrated “colour revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and the Arab world. In one of his TV programmes, Kiselyov, who was sanctioned by the majority of European nations in 2014 for his war-mongering efforts, alleged that Americans instigated the French against Macron because they wanted to unseat him for promoting the idea of the European Army that is seen by Moscow as an alternative to, if not competitor of, NATO, which, in Putin’s eyes, is the main instrument of the American influence. This interpretation reflected the Kremlin’s visceral fear of a regime change, and, by focusing on the violent actions of the Gilets Jaunes and the chaos they brought to the streets of Paris, as well as virtually justifying the police repressions against the demonstrators, the Russian state-controlled TV simply continued discouraging the Russian society from protesting against the authorities.
The Russian interpretation of the Gilets Jaunes aimed at the international audience was strikingly different: Russian state-controlled media operating in several European languages encouraged the protests in France. Right-wing media such as RT and Sputnik pictured the Gilets Jaunes movement as a protest against Macron’s liberal politics (implicitly suggesting that the protests should be supported), while the left-leaning Redfish trumpeted police brutality with an objective to wind the audience up against the French capitalist leadership. To add fuel to the fire, Russia’s international media also employed their usual disinformation techniques. For example, they promoted the declarations from two marginal police trade unions that supported the Gilets Janues to create an impression that the French police in general was siding with the protest movement.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was this particular narrative that apparently became the most popular message among hundreds of pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts (that may or may not be operated by Russian actors), according to the research conducted by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a unit of the German Marshall Fund of the US. Following these reports, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on 9 December that they started an official inquiry into possible Russian interference behind the Gilets Jaunes movement. The Kremlin quickly responded to these developments: on 10 December, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov dismissed the charges by saying that any allegation “of Russia’s possible involvement [in the French protests] was nothing but slander”.
The far-right link
The anti-political nature of the Gilets Jaunes effectively ruled out the possibility of major politicians openly joining the protests, even if those politicians supported the demonstrators and even if significant parts of the Gilets Jaunes movement voted for them in the presidential or parliamentary elections in 2017. However, this exclusionary approach did not apply to minor activists, representing, among others, far-right movements and organisations. One organisation that was especially visible during the protests was the Action Française (French Action) – their visibility sometimes triggered attacks from far-left activists. The protests attracted even foreign far-right activists, for example members of the Italian fascist party CasaPound.
Among the far-right activists present at the Gilets Jaunes demonstrations, there was a small group of people who were known, in particular, for their Russian contacts: Xavier Moreau, Fabrice Sorlin, André Chanclu and Emmanuel Leroy.
Xavier Moreau is a former paratrooper officer who holds dual French-Russian citizenship and owns the Moscow-based Sokol Holding that provides consultancy and security to French companies. According to Bruno Gollnisch, a prominent member of the far-right National Front (renamed into the National Rally in 2018), Moreau contributed to establishing the relations between the National Front and Russian actors. In November 2018, Moreau “observed” the illegitimate “parliamentary elections” in Russia-occupied Eastern Ukraine.
Fabrice Sorlin is the leader of the French Catholic ultranationalist organisation “Day of Wrath” and former candidate for the National Front. In 2009, he formed a small pro-Kremlin organisation, the Europe-Russia Alliance that was later renamed into the Association France-Europe-Russia Alliance.
André Chanclu is a former member of the violent extreme-right Defence Union Group (better known as GUD). In late 2008, Chanclu founded two small pro-Kremlin organisations, France-Russia Collective and Novopole.
Emmanuel Leroy is a former member of the New Right Research and Study Group for European Civilisation (better known as GRECE) and member of Sorlin’s Association France-Europe-Russia Alliance. According to French journalist Gaïdz Minassian, Leroy is married to a Russian wife who has been close to the Russian Embassy in Paris.
The four French pro-Kremlin far-right activists have also been in contact with Russian fascist Aleksandr Dugin, the leader of the International Eurasian Movement. Dugin was once a professor at the Moscow State University but lost his job in 2014 after his hateful comments against the Ukrainian people. He was also the editor of two media projects, Katehon website and Tsargrad TV, founded by Russian ultranationalist businessman Konstantin Malofeev, but was dismissed from both positions in the beginning of 2017. As his French contacts in the social networks widely supported the Gilets Jaunes, Dugin himself enthusiastically approved of the protests and actively posted extreme-right interpretations of the demonstrations.
After the publication on the social networks of the picture of Moreau and Sorlin holding the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic at one of the demonstrations of the Gilets Jaunes, the Security Services of Ukraine started disseminating a conspiracy theory – essentially based on one single picture – suggesting that the Federal Security Service of Russia and Directorate of General Staff of the Russian Army organised “riots and acts of violence in France”. Moreover, the Ukraine’s security services alleged that Russian intelligence services would organise “similar provocations in Belgium, Germany, Spain, Bulgaria and other European countries”. While lacking evidence and factual basis behind it, the Ukrainian conspiracy theory about Russia orchestrating the violent activities of the Gilets Jaunes movement resonated with some anti-Russian circles.
The Gilets Jaunes are a very broad protest movement that cuts across all French political camps. While maintaining the generally anti-political character and refusing platform to major politicians, the Gilets Jaunes are nevertheless joined by minor activists from various political movements and organisations, including the far right who play a visible and often divisive role in the anti-government protests.
The Gilets Jaunes are also being instrumentalised by foreign powers, including the US, Turkey and, most notably, Russia that are trying to exploit the protests to push forward their own political agendas and discredit European liberal democracy. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that the Gilets Jaunes feature a few far-right activists who have been involved in various pro-Kremlin efforts and maintain contacts with their Russian counterparts, there is no evidence that official Moscow has played any role in orchestrating the protest movement.