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Yellow Vests at crossroads as anti-Semitic incidents cloud message

Eric Feferberg, AFP | A protester in Paris holds a French flag during the 14th consecutive week of nationwide Yellow Vest protests on February 16, 2019.

The ugly anti-Semitic invective levied Saturday against French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut by yellow vest-clad demonstrators in Paris left a new stain on a movement that has already seen its popular support undercut by outbreaks of violence.

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Hurled in anger and caught on a video that went viral, the insults included “Dirty Zionist” and “France is ours”, quickly eliciting a wave of condemnation from across the political spectrum.

Finkielkraut, 69, was harassed by people who gathered on a Paris street during protests last weekend wearing the now-iconic neon yellow vests.

A member of the prestigious Académie Française and the French-born son of Polish immigrants, Finkielkraut's father survived deportation from France to Auschwitz during World War II.

The attack on a prominent member of France's Jewish community quickly raised questions over whether the Yellow Vest movement is itself anti-Semitic – or if it merely has some unsavoury undercurrents.

The three-month-old movement first grew out of anger over a proposed fuel-tax hike before morphing into a broader airing of economic grievances and discontent with President Emmanuel Macron’s administration, mainstream media and elites in general.

But the recent anti-Semitic overtones may well illustrate the limits of a protest movement that is deliberately leaderless, wilfully unstructured, self-consciously open to all comers – and yet impressive in its longevity, after 14 weeks of uninterrupted weekly revolts.

Anti-Semitic acts on the rise

The Finkielkraut incident was the latest in a spate of anti-Semitic incidents across France. The marked rise in such acts – a 74 percent surge in anti-Jewish offences was recorded last year – predates the Yellow Vest protests, which began on November 17.

Still, observers have noted the use of anti-Semitic slogans during certain Yellow Vest demonstrations as well as vandalism that has coincided with some of the events, including the words “Macron Jews’ Bitch” painted in English on a central Paris garage door.

Moreover, after Finkielkraut was harassed many French pundits took note of the slow, tepid or lack of response by the Yellow Vests’ self-appointed principals, with the muted reaction taken to suggest complicity or at least tolerance.

>> Read more: Why is France facing an upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks?

“We, unfortunately, cannot say that anti-Semitism is on the margins of the movement,” French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy told Europe 1 radio on Monday. “It is the heart of the movement … That doesn’t mean that the movement is intrinsically anti-Semitic, but it does mean that it is time for them to come forward strongly to say, ‘Not in our name,’ not like they are doing now: ‘Yes, OK, but...’ There are no buts.”

Taboos falling away

Others suggest the movement’s no-taboo modus operandi has opened the floodgates.

“It would be false and absurd to say that the Yellow Vest movement is anti-Semitic,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told L’Express magazine on Tuesday. “I think, however – and this is more worrisome – that with the advent of the Yellow Vest crisis, a certain number of safeguards … have fallen away. People call it a freeing of speech, but in truth it is much more than that. The prohibitions that create the conditions of a peaceful life in society have been called into question. And among those elements, there is anti-Semitism.”

The premier went on to note that one of the cornerstones of the otherwise amorphous Yellow Vest movement is an anti-establishment stance that holds few things sacred.

”It touches on respect for symbols of the Republic, journalists, elected officials as well as churches, synagogues and cemeteries….” Philippe said. “Going after Alain Finkielkraut is precisely going after a symbol of the Republic – the indispensable figure of the socially involved intellectual.”

The nature of the movement – which remains all-encompassing and leaderless – also helps explain how anti-Jewish sentiment may be gaining a foothold. A self-styled ultra-democratic movement intentionally bereft of professionals could be particularly vulnerable to radical, organised interlopers looking to usurp the message.

“Anti-Semitic incidents among the Yellow Vests are a bit [built-in] to the movement because there are several political families who demonstrate within the Yellow Vests that exhibit anti-Semitic behaviour,” Sylvain Boulouque, a historian and far-left specialist at Cergy-Pontoise University, told FRANCE 24.

Boulouque cited the far left, the far right as well as Islamists or Salafists (who he said "might seem the most obvious but which are fairly new within the Yellow Vest movement”). French media reported that one man identified as having insulted Finkielkraut in Saturday’s video is a Salafist, but that claim has not been confirmed.

Anti-Semitic remarks "can be heard in every demonstration”, said Boulouque. “What’s happening now is that these are demonstrations that are definitely not organised, and the Yellow Vests do not monitor the protesters’ remarks.”

Overwhelmed

One far-right specialist echoes that analysis. “The Yellow Vests are not anti-Semitic as a movement. They began with societal demands,” Jean-Yves Camus, author of “Far-Right Politics in Europe”, told AFP on Monday.

“But it is a movement that wagered on ... an absence of leaders, of stewards [for rallies], and that put itself in a situation of very quickly seeing radical elements overwhelm the declarations of the media figureheads.”

Camus added that the Yellow Vests fell into a trap in the French capital, where they have protested – always disruptively – on 14 consecutive Saturdays. “In Paris, it becomes a protest against the symbols of power and, naturally, the most radical elements are more seen.”

Another reason for an increase in anti-Semitic elements among the Yellow Vests may simply be logistical: As the overall number of protesters diminishes, those remaining might be the hardest of the hardliners.

This coincides with the convictions of France's intelligence community. Asked by Le Parisien newspaper on Tuesday whether the number of radical Yellow Vest demonstrators is on the rise, French intelligence chief Nicolas Lerner said: “Proportionally, yes, because the number of demonstrators is falling.”

Lerner, who heads the DGSI, the agency charged with France’s internal security, suggested that some of the most radical, violent elements appear to have inspired violent behaviour in fellow protesters who didn’t initially belong to radical movements.

But he noted, “at no point did the extremist groups succeed in taking over the leadership of the movement, even if they see in it an opportunity to go after symbols of the Republic, which are their usual targets”.

‘Lightning rod’

The result, in the words of one editorialist, is that the protests have simply acted as “a lightning rod”.

“After the Saturdays of violence that clouded the 'Yellow Vest’ message, their declining mobilisation has left more room for the pariahs of the Republic,” Paul Caraci wrote Monday in Midi Libre, a regional newspaper. “Anti-Semites, xenophobes and other extremist troublemakers have found here a screen to stain with their intolerable vomit.”

And while the Yellow Vest movement may not be anti-Semitic per se, its members might be more receptive to the types of ideas that can fuel anti-Semitism.

A study released by the Ifop polling firm last week showed that people identifying as “Yellow Vests” are considerably more likely to espouse conspiracy theories than the general French population (41 percent vs. 21 percent). Ifop tested for beliefs in a wide spectrum of conspiracy theories, including “some airplane contrails are composed of chemicals deliberately spread for secret reasons” (29 percent vs. 15 percent); “international drug trafficking is actually controlled by the CIA” (35 percent vs. 19 percent); and “the car accident in which Lady Diana died was in fact a covered-up assassination” (57 percent vs. 34 percent).

Asked whether “a worldwide Zionist plot” exists, 44 percent of Yellow Vest members surveyed agreed compared to 22 percent of French people generally, according to the study.

The Ifop report also draws a link between the Yellow Vests’ receptiveness to conspiracy theories and their disproportionate distrust of traditional media. While 37 percent of French people use social media and video sites as their primary sources of news, the Ifop report found a full 59 percent of those identifying as Yellow Vests do so.

A separate survey by the same pollster – released Monday but conducted before the Finkielkraut incident on Saturday – showed support for the Yellow Vest movement was down to 50 percent, a five-point drop in a single week and a new low since Ifop began asking the question in November. Only 11 percent of French people surveyed now identify as Yellow Vests themselves, down from 19 percent two months ago, amid weekend after weekend of protest violence.

Finally, while just 31 percent of French people polled in early December thought the Yellow Vests needed to end their fight, 52 percent now believe they should call it quits.

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