French protesters' motives are in eyes of many beholders


PARIS (AP) — While flaming barricades, shattered glass and skirmishes have occupied Paris during six weeks of anti-government protests, English-speaking observers have fallen back on a favorite pastime: reflecting on France’s revolutions.

Some journalists detect hints of Russian influence in the fuel tax-driven rallies that appeared mid-November.

Far-right American commentators portray the unrest as a rebuke of French President Emmanuel Macron’s defense of the global treaty hammered out in Paris that seeks to limit global warming. For some of the most strident American critics , the protests vindicate President Donald Trump’s “America First” credo.

“The Paris Agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris,” Trump crowed last week, going on to make the evidence-free assertion that “yellow vest” protesters were chanting “We Want Trump!”

Some of those in the best position to know — a French political scientist who has studied social unrest, a researcher who’s helped carry out hundreds of interviews with yellow vest demonstrators and an academic who has crunched 2 million protest-related tweets — say evidence for such assertions ranges from the arguable to the nonexistent.

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“I reject these grand explanations,” University of Burgundy political science professor Dominique Andolfatto said. “I think it’s a reaction of the gradual buildup of practical measures.”

Amid the noise, a team of 70 academics and students gave themselves an ambitious sociological challenge: getting as complete an idea of who the yellow vests are and what they want. The group has interviewed hundreds so far across France, according to Magali Della Sudda, one of three researchers who launched the project at the Emile Durkheim Center at Sciences Po Bordeaux.

In an interim report published in Le Monde newspaper last week, the research team said the protesters generally were of modest financial means and named the cost of living and higher taxes as their top two concerns. Della Sudda said she had yet to encounter protesters voicing the wacky allegations — about bogus terror attacks or secret plans to flood France with migrants, for example — that have spread across Facebook in the wake of the yellow vest rallies.

“I’ve not seen any trace of these kinds of conspiracy theories,” she said.

Ditto the anxiety over supposed Kremlin interference, a roaming target of blame for political ills since Russian hackers and trolls were caught interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The French arm of Russia Today has covered the protests aggressively, but gets nowhere near as many eyes as more traditional French media outlets. The website of the Moscow-funded broadcaster remains the 17th most-cited in yellow vest-related discussions on Twitter, according to a recent report drawing on 2.3 million tweets sent between Nov. 30 and Dec. 4.

Nikos Smyrnaios, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Toulouse who analyzed the tweets, said holding foreign propaganda responsible for France’s turmoil treats the French public like a passive receptacle “without critical thought, isolated in its digital bubble, and vulnerable to whatever Russian bot or unfounded conspiracy theory.”

Some have read the protests as a rejection of Macron’s focus on climate change. In an editorial published last month, The Wall Street Journal suggested that Macron needed to abandon his “expensive green piety” and focus on “what voters elected him to do — create jobs and make the French economy great again.”

In fact, the French — and the yellow vests — still largely cherish green issues. That includes many who crossed over to join marchers at a pro-environment demonstration in Paris on Dec. 8.

“It’s not a rejection of ecology,” Fabrice Ravebet, 40, who is unemployed and participated in the yellow vest protests. What bothered him was the “financial injustice” of forcing poorer drivers to pony up more to keep older cars running while the wealthy weren’t taxed on the jet fuel used to fly them off on vacation.

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English speakers aren’t alone in struggling to understand the protesters’ motives; French journalists, politicians and union leaders have also wrestled over the origins — and the ultimate direction — of the self-organized movement.

Some politicians and commentators have voiced fear that political extremists on the left and right could draw energy and recruits from the ranks of demonstrators. That could yet happen, although many protesters see their movement as nonpartisan.

“It’s not a left and right thing,” said Max Werle, 56, a fluorescent vest-clad office administrator who was among the protesters on Paris’ Champs Elysees on Saturday. Next to him, 53-year-old Lionel Toussaint insisted the yellow vests would resist moves by politicians of any stripe to harness the movement for their own ends.

“We’re apolitical,” he said.

Both men laughed off the idea that the yellow vests were big Trump fans. If anything, they said, Macron reminded them too much of the U.S. president, who is seen by many in France as a megalomaniac bent on serving the wealthiest sliver of Americans at the expense of everyone else.

“Trump and Macron are the same,” Toussaint said.

The idea that the French would take to the streets saying “We want Trump” was totally implausible in any case, said Ravebet.

“Have you ever heard a Frenchman protesting in English?” he said.



Raphael Satter can be reached at:

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