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From social media to the ballot box, Yellow Vests throw hat in European ring

Charly Triballeau, AFP | Ingrid Levavasseur, a figure of the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) movement, stands in a street of Grand Bourgtheroulde, northwestern France, on January 15, 2019.

A group of France’s Yellow Vest protesters has declared it will field a list of candidates in the upcoming European Parliament elections. But that effort, paradoxically, could well be a boon to the very establishment the anti-elite protesters oppose.

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The Yellow Vest movement has been a disruptive, if amorphous, force since bursting onto the scene in France on November 17. Named for the high-visibility vests that French motorists are required to carry in their vehicles, its demonstrations initially railed against a fuel-tax hike proposed by President Emmanuel Macron and his centrist government. After the Yellow Vests won concessions from the government that included nixing the fuel-tax rise, they pressed on, their protests evolving into a broader anti-government, anti-inequality campaign. Now one group is angling to turn that pressure against taxation into representation.

A preliminary list released Wednesday enumerated 10 candidates slated to run in the May 26 European legislative poll. It includes an eclectic palette of personalities – a forklift operator, a stay-at-home mother, an accountant, a small-business owner – ranging in age from 29 to 53.

The “Citizen-led Rally” (RIC) list will be led by Ingrid Levavasseur, a 31-year-old nursing assistant and single mother of two from Normandy.

“The citizen movement… has shown the need to transform the anger into a political project capable of giving answers to the French people who have supported it,” the group said in a statement on Wednesday. It aims to present a total of 79 candidates, with the 69 remaining hopefuls to be chosen by internal ballot next month.

The list’s name is a nod to the Citizen-led Referenda the group espouses. “The platform is under construction,” Campaign Director Hayk Shahinyan told BFMTV. “Indeed, we want these potential Yellow Vest European lawmakers to not be deputies of a party or an individual, but for them to be at the disposal of the citizens,” he explained. “It will be the citizens who decide how we are going to vote in the European Parliament, project after project, and we will pull the European Parliament out of the sort of opacity it is in at the moment.” Shahinyan said he is confident the list can make inroads at the ballot box in May. “I believe we can wake up a significant portion of the abstainers and we can carry a strong message that won’t be anecdotal in terms of the score in the end.”

Indeed, a survey by the Elabe firm published Wednesday that polled for potential Yellow Vest participation in the European elections showed the group attracting 13 percent of the vote in May’s contest. It showed Marine Le Pen’s National Rally list second only to French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) ahead of the May vote, whether or not the Yellow Vests take part. But a look at the Yellow Vest numbers shows that, while they could potentially coax voters away from parties across the spectrum, they would disproportionately cut into the far-right party’s potential score, paring three points from Le Pen’s RN from 20.5 percent to 17.5 percent. (Macron’s party would only lose one point, dipping from 23.5 percent to 22.5 percent.)

“The arrival of this list is very interesting because it is going to shuffle the deck of the French political game,” Nicolas Lebourg, a far-right specialist and researcher at the Université de Montpellier, told FRANCE 24’s Aude Mazoué on Thursday.

“Paradoxically, those who have everything to gain from this Yellow Vest list is the government and LREM, while the RN suffers the most from it, even though it supports the movement,” pollster Gaël Sliman of the Odoxa firm told Agence France-Presse. “LREM only needs to keep quiet, do nothing and reap the benefits.”

Le Pen told French television she is “not afraid”, since her platform is “protective” of the French people. “It doesn’t pose a problem for me if there's a Yellow Vest list,” she told the CNews newschannel. “It is never bad news when democracy works.” But the far-right leader did seek to suggest there was a risk the fledgling movement’s independence could be compromised and that it could be manipulated on its left flank. “When one sees the former socialist activists, etc., around them, that danger exists,” she said.

Lebourg, meanwhile, says it isn’t surprising the Yellow Vest list would give the RN, formerly known as the National Front (FN), the most to worry about. “The FN voters are very small business owners crushed by taxes, private-sector employees with small salaries, like the Yellow Vests,” he says. And like the Yellow Vests, FN voters are sensitive to rural matters. “The FN and the Yellow Vests address the same issues,” Lebourg noted.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux, for his part, appeared sanguine about the latest developments, more than ten weeks after the Yellow Vests took to roundabouts across the country to slam the administration he represents.

“Everyone in our country is free to constitute a list, to carry their ideas. I'd rather people do so at the ballot box than hidden behind anonymous pseudonyms on social media or in balaclavas during demonstrations with violence,” Griveaux told Radio Classique. He added that he was “glad that the people… who put on a yellow vest will put it down and say: We want to present a list in elections and present proposals with a platform, with tangible issues about which voters will be able to decide.”

But having to turn a nebulous, unstructured movement into something more specific is a leap. Turning that crowd-rousing, elite-bashing wave into an electoral list and votes, with the choices that forces, may be easier said than done.

“Every anti-elite movement is always confronted with the issue of leadership,” William Genieys, a specialist on political elites at France’s CNRS research agency, told FRANCE 24. “In order to exist, these movements must get organised and coordinate with representatives, with middle management,” he said.

But within the movement, it is clear that not everyone is poised to get aboard.

One Yellow Vest figurehead, Eric Drouet, has already expressed his dismay over the initiative. “These candidacies that are spontaneous and represent in no aspect the Yellow Vests will play into [LREM’s] hands,” Drouet wrote on Facebook. His “La France en colère !!!” (Angry France), one of the Facebook groups that have played a key role in the movement from the start, has more than 300,000 members.

“Either they manage to agree with one another and say precise things, and it will be difficult to continue to please everybody, or they don’t manage it and woolliness cannot be tolerated in a political party standing for elections,” Sliman told AFP.

For what it’s worth, as a new chapter begins in the life of a movement that is still only two months old, Lebourg points out “a positive sign” in the initiative. “The Yellow Vests intend to make the French people who've abstained from voting for years heard,” he says. “If the movement makes good on its gamble, it can only be a positive thing if certain abstainers return to the polling booths. All the more so in European elections, which have trouble drawing big numbers.”

(With AFP and REUTERS)

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