Beyond the worst rioting ever seen on the Champs-Elysees, a particularly disturbing drama in the fuel price protests sweeping across France was a threat to throw six immigrants “on a giant barbecue”.
Scenes of intense violence in and around the most famous avenue in Paris on Saturday were bad enough, but the treatment of the unidentified men found hidden in the back of a tanker lorry was especially chilling.
They were stopped by a group of so-called yellow vests (gilets jaunes) on the A16 motorway at Flixecourt, near Amiens, last Tuesday. The demonstrators get their names from the high-visibility jackets all motorists are obliged to carry in France, but rocketing petrol and diesel charges were evidently not their only concern.
“Throw them on a giant barbecue” and “they cost us too much in taxes” was their reaction to the group of dark-skinned foreigners looking to claim asylum in France, or across the Channel in Britain. After dragging the immigrants from their hiding place, the mob handed them over to a police patrol.
The CGT (General Confederation of Labour) union is helping to organise the yellow vests’ campaign and – admirably – made a complaint about racism to prosecutors who launched a criminal enquiry into the incident.
Referring to the Holocaust, the CGT statement on the horror reads: “All of this is reminiscent of very sad and unglamorous events in our history, but is above all clearly a call for racial hatred.”
On Saturday I saw yellow vests smashing up pavements to create missiles to throw at the police, building sites being torn apart to turn into barricades and fires being lit in residential areas. Water cannons and round upon round of tear gas provoked the crowds into running battles with the police, leading to almost 70 arrests.
Since the protests began earlier this month, there have been two traffic accident-related deaths linked to illegal road blockades, and more than 500 wounded. Scores of yellow vests have been charged with public order offences.
However, it would be unfair to suggest that the many thousands taking part in the demonstrations were all punchy bigots. The majority of those I spoke to were part of a forgotten France based in the suburbs of major cities or the countryside. They rely on very low incomes or benefits, and are mainly dependent on their cars to get them anywhere. Their rage is aimed at a metropolitan elite who not only have far more money and power, but who can afford to pay for the kind of green initiatives which are partly behind the fuel price rises.
Emmanuel Macron – the French head of state the yellow vests call “president of the rich” – personifies this class of out-of-touch townies. His perceived arrogance has resulted in a woeful approval rating of just 26 per cent, according to recent polls – all while close to a tenth of the fit-for-work population remains unemployed. The former merchant banker is frequently pictured on a bike at the many holiday homes available to him, and has pledged to keep increasing ecologically motivated taxes in line with the Paris climate change agreement.
More than that, Macron continues to cut public service jobs while liberalising the economy as quickly as possible using presidential decrees. Dissent is right and proper, especially in a democratic republic still imbued with a revolutionary spirit.
The real problem, however, is that opposition to Macron involves as much venal extremism as is evidently found in the yellow vest movement. Remember that the runner-up to Macron in last year’s presidential election was Marine Le Pen, leader of a far-right party then still called the Front National. Its strong links with convicted racists, antisemites and Islamophobes apparently mattered as little to many voters as its equally disturbing history of fascism.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) movement did extremely well in the first round of voting too. Had the self-styled “eco-socialist” been more open to working with potential allies, not least of all the Socialist Party, then he too could feasibly have sneaked the presidency.
Both Le Pen and Mélenchon captured the imaginations of so-called “left behind” provincial communities, appealing to mindsets not unlike some of those that voted Britain out of the European Union in 2016. A desire for a Frexit – the French equivalent of Brexit – is a standard refrain among many of the yellow vests. These are the types who have largely been ignored by the notoriously corrupt, self-serving Paris establishment. With few resources or influence, they are prepared to rally behind any cause that reflects their intense anger and sense of frustration.
Like the economically illiterate leaders of the National Rally (the new name for the Front National, with Le Pen still in charge!) and France Insoumise (which is effectively a one-man pressure group calling for a Sixth Republic) they accentuate the negative at all times, while never seriously living up to positions of responsibility.
During recent brushes with the law over corruption allegations, both Le Pen and Mélenchon acted like rowdy political agitators. Le Pen insisted she would refuse to cooperate with examining magistrates, saying they were corrupt tools of the state. When fraud investigators turned up at Mélenchon’s Paris apartment and party HQ, he screamed at them while live-streaming his rant.
Little wonder that French interior minister Christophe Castaner accused Le Pen of encouraging her supporters to cause Saturday’s trouble. Highly organised casseurs – a French noun that loosely translates as people who want to smash things up – were heard shouting pro-Le Pen slogans as they went about their destruction.
Their malevolence gained a great deal of publicity, but as far as persuading Macron to change his anti-car policies is concerned, they were all but useless. As with the National Rally and France Insoumise, the yellow vests are a symptom of France’s endemic problems, but by no means a solution.
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