The success of yellow vest protesters in France hinges on their whiteness – and this is why

Rioters are pushing their alleged oppressors to the very limit, because they know white people will get away with a lot more than those who are far more reviled



Nabila Ramdani
Sunday 20 January 2019 15:10 GMT
Paris swathed in smoke at yellow vests demo

The Clash’s song “White Riot” would be a fitting musical accompaniment to the on-going yellow vests insurrection against French president Emmanuel Macron’s government. During weeks of disturbances, there has barely been a brown or black face in sight.

This absence is particularly notable in major cities such as Paris, where vast suburban communities habitually blamed for all social ills have shown next to no interest in joining.

Everybody, from the casseurs – a French word for those who go out to destroy property – to thugs fighting the police, has been overwhelmingly fair-skinned. Typically, reactionary commentators and other bigots who like to dwell on a mythical “enemy within” are very disappointed by this.

When the Arc de Triomphe itself was ransacked by a mob just before Christmas, there was an outcry, especially when a statue of Marianne – the female personification of the French Republic – had her marble face smashed in. Neo-nazis obsessed with the Third Reich have since been implicated in the desecration, which caused more than €1m worth of damage.

Paris protests: Police and 'gilet jaunes' protesters clash for fifth straight weekend

The sense of an entire civilisation being under attack has been furthered week after week, with fires lit all over Paris, from just outside the postmodern Jeu de Paume art gallery to the medieval Saint-Germain Abbey.

On Saturday, there were skirmishes next to Les Invalides, where the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte lies beneath a golden dome.

If the usual housing estate suspects had been involved in such acts of destruction, you can be sure that the establishment’s “us against them” clamour would have gone into overdrive.

Just imagine a group of Muslim or black African men using a stolen forklift truck to bring down the main door of a government ministry, as the yellow vests did on one of their “day of rage” Saturdays.

Or a well-organised gang of them attempting to assault the Elysee Palace itself, or throwing a smoke grenade into a police van in order to steal an assault rifle, as happened in December.

Words like “terrorist” and “radicalised” roll easily off the tongue when alleged lawbreakers fit a stereotype, but this is by no means the case when they are representing a movement from La France profonde – the country’s traditional provincial heartland.

Banks, private homes and cars have also been seriously damaged. Millions of pounds worth of goods have been looted, not least from luxury shops around the Champs-Elysees. Such scenes have been replicated in most French cities and major towns.

As propagandists struggle to link the chaos with those from immigrant backgrounds, white riot privilege has allowed the yellow vest agitation to become routine. Intensely violent rallies are now held every Saturday without fail.

Desperate to pacify the street mobs, Macron has already given them some €10bn (£8.9bn) worth of government concessions. He first repealed green taxes on fuel, so removing one of the most principled ecological aspects of his policy schedule. Then there were hugely generous fiscal measures, including raising the national minimum wage by seven per cent.

Meanwhile, criminal courts have been reluctant to hand down anything except for token punishments against those yellow vest rioters who have actually been caught. This is despite their haphazard road blockades leading to horrifying accidents that have claimed a dozen lives so far.

Contrast all this with 2005 – the last time there were disturbances across France, linked to ethnic minority communities living on sink estates. Then, the trouble was actually triggered by police.

An incident in which two boys died from electrocution while hiding from officers in Clichy-sous-Bois, near Paris, was enough to mobilise hundreds of thousands. Beyond brutal repression and harassment by the forces of law and order, they were rallying against high unemployment, discrimination and the general lack of opportunities.

Those involved almost 14 years ago were not allowed anywhere near central Paris, let alone the monuments of state, and were instead left to rampage through their own squalid housing warrens. They were given next to nothing in terms of government appeasement either.

Instead, Nicolas Sarkozy, then a notoriously reactionary interior minister, called them “scum” who should be “washed away with a power hose”. He implemented colonial state of emergency legislation, including the kind of curfews used during France’s war against Algeria.

As a form of collective punishment, almost 6,000 were arrested, and nearly 1,500, including minors, convicted to custody. Some suspects were threatened with deportation and having their French citizenship revoked.

Nowadays, the dismal prospects for social advancement for the types targeted, and the way they are treated by a ruthless establishment, remain unchanged. In many cases they are far worse.

This was made abundantly clear by footage of a police chief repeatedly punching an unarmed black man during a yellow vests rally in Toulon earlier this month. The unnamed victim had his head banged against a wall by Didier Andrieux, who was in direct charge of 400 officers in the southern port city.

Never mind that the suspect was not even wearing a yellow vest – the high visibility motoring jacket that is the movement’s trademark – but he was clearly pacified and under control. Andrieux, nonetheless, hit out with sheer venom.

Yet, unsurprisingly, the Toulon prosecutor cleared the commander of any wrongdoing within a day, saying he had used “appropriate force” after being knocked over by protesters two hours earlier.

In turn, this version of events has since been contradicted by new videos showing that the bellicose commander had, in fact, been the first to administer blows after deploying a telescopic truncheon.

There will now be an internal police inquiry, but it is unlikely to challenge the conclusions of the judiciary for the obvious reason that it will be carried out by Andrieux’s own colleagues.

Just as appalling, Andrieux has just been made a Légion d’honneur. The fact that a career policeman associated with this type of horrendous behaviour has been awarded France’s highest medal for civilian and military merit says so much about how institutionalised the behaviour is.

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Short of their usual pantomime villains, manipulative bigots who despise anybody linked with continents such as Africa and religions such as Islam, are now torn between supporting the yellow vests and their sometimes legitimate grievances, and condemning their excesses. This is becoming increasingly difficult.

Yellow vests are certainly being punched, beaten with truncheons and smothered in chemical weapons on protest days. Projectiles called flash-balls developed by a French firearms manufacturer and ostensibly non-lethal grenades have been used to maim and otherwise hurt them, but they are not receiving anything like the state-sanctioned abuse that ethnic minorities still endure every day of the week.

Ongoing French inquiries with a racial element relate to black and North African men who have been shot dead, or otherwise allegedly killed by police while in custody.

The double standards are well reflected in “White Riot”, a song about those who do not usually take to the streets being tempted to do exactly that. The yellow vests are pushing their alleged oppressors to the very limit, because they know white rioters will get away with a lot more than those who are far more reviled, and whose problems are much more pressing.

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