The Far Right Is Trying to Co-opt the Yellow Vests
The French protests have participants on the left and right, but splinter movements abroad draw more xenophobes and anti-government conspiracy theorists.
This weekend in Manchester, England, Yellow Vest protesters decorated their vests with logos of the far-right English Defense League. In Edmonton, Canada, the Yellow Vest protesters were joined by members of the anti-Muslim group Wolves of Odin.
The Yellow Vest movement, which began as a nebulous economic protest in France, has found a new life with far-right groups abroad. In Canada, the movement has spawned regular protests with a strong anti-immigrant message. In the U.K., pro-Brexit factions have worn yellow vests to harass their rivals. Participants in the Canadian and British demonstrations have also mixed the French movement with an unhinged American conspiracy theory.
The result is an international movement riddled with extremists, all feeding off the more popular French protests.
The original French Yellow Vest (“Gilets Jaunes”) demonstrations were not without their own far-right element. Some of the movement’s earliest marches saw reports of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, the New Republic reported. A notorious anti-Semite was photographed as the face of the protests before journalists later recognized him. A December poll found the movement had the highest favorability ratings with supporters of the far-right politician Marine Le Pen.
But the movement had a broader appeal. The protests kicked off in November, sparked by a bundle of populist issues, including a new fuel tax and rising income inequality. Liberal, leftist, and anarchist elements joined the protests. A popular meme about the protests illustrated the movement’s allure to the political right and left, and to authoritarians and anarchists, alike.
This omnidirectional anger at French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist policies earned the Yellow Vest movement favorable polling in France—and admiration abroad.
Footage of the protests became popular on far-right and conspiracy Facebook pages in the U.S., where Americans highlighted some protesters’ anti-immigrant sentiments and promoted a hoax about Parisians chanting “we want Trump.” (President Donald Trump later repeated the false claim on Twitter.) Pro-Yellow Vest memes are popular on Reddit’s biggest Trump page, r/the_donald.
In the U.K. and Canada, in particular, those far-right elements have taken their Yellow Vest admiration offline and onto the streets. In London and Manchester this weekend, far-right Yellow Vesters rallied in favor of Brexit. Some of the 40 attendees at the Manchester rally wore vests decorated with slogans by the English Defense League, a far-right Islamophobic group.
“If they want a war we’ll give them a war, let’s give them a fucking war,” one far-right Yellow Vest organizer shouted during a livestream of the London demonstration. Last month, that same organizer was among a group of Yellow Vest demonstrators who accosted an anti-Brexit politician, calling her a “traitor.” Neo-Nazis previously used term to describe Jo Cox, an anti-Brexit politician who was murdered ahead of the 2016 Brexit vote.
Meanwhile, the far-right group Wolves of Odin have been a persistent presence at Canadian Yellow Vest demonstrations every weekend, the Star Edmonton reported. Some Canadian Yellow Vesters have denounced the Wolves of Odin, and leftist groups have used the Yellow Vest movement to push their own agendas in Canada and the U.K.
But the protests’ far-right elements remain highly visible.
Evan Balgord, director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network told the Star that the largest Facebook page for Canada’s Yellow Vest movement (which boasts more than 100,000 members) is rife with racism.
“If you go through it at any given moment, you’re going to find anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, you’re going to find death threats, you’re going to find other calls to violence, racism directed to Muslims—and it doesn’t take very long,” Balgord told the Star. “I found my first death threat in five minutes.”
A brief scroll of the page on Monday afternoon surfaced anti-Muslim and anti-gay posts, as well as conspiracy theories about the New World Order.
U.K. and Canadian Yellow Vest protests are also merging with another dysfunctional, foreign movement: the U.S.-based QAnon conspiracy theory.
The organizer of this weekend’s London Yellow Vest demonstration wore a vest with a QAnon slogan on it, the BBC’s Mike Wendling reported. QAnon is an American conspiracy theory that falsely claims Trump’s rivals are involved in bizarre crimes, namely child sex-trafficking and cannibalism. Despite the theory’s obvious falsehoods, failed predictions, and origins in the U.S., it has attracted international fans who believe QAnon’s claims about global crime rings and imminent mass arrests. The theory has a growing Canadian fanbase, The Daily Beast previously reported, and Canadian Yellow Vest protesters have carried QAnon signs since at least mid-December.
Although QAnon is led by an anonymous forum user who claims to be a Trump insider, its followers have increasingly expanded on the conspiracy theory, making it difficult for even its original author to control.
“I really feel like we're heading for a Q movement where Q isn't necessary,” Mike Rothschild, a writer documenting QAnon’s evolution remarked on Twitter this weekend.
That leaderless conspiracy movement could end up looking a lot like elements of the U.K. and Canadian Yellow Vest movements: nebulous in structure, but undeniably far-right.
A Friday picture of a Canadian Yellow Vest protester showed the movement’s possible future. Far from the economic populist platform of France, the demonstrator’s vest was decorated with a jumble of Trumpian and conspiratorial language.
“Q,” the vest read. “No Trudeau. CBC = Fake News.”