(Written by Andrew Higgins)
While security forces under the control of France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, have deployed tear gas, water cannons and mass arrests to quell sometimes violent demonstrations across the country, “Yellow Vest” protesters in northern France have found an unlikely sanctuary: under the wing of a far-right mayor who has made his career railing against disorder.
Mayor Steeve Briois, a leader in France’s anti-immigrant National Front, has allowed the demonstrators to gather around wood fires in a municipal parking lot, and he put up a sign at the entrance to town declaring its support for the Yellow Vests. He also gave protesters a tent and granted them permission to march along a main road — in defiance of a ban issued by regional authorities under Macron.
Briois’ critics say his motivation is obvious: The hundreds of thousands of protesters are France’s newest and most powerful grassroots force, threatening the presidency of Macron and bringing to the fore the plight of the country’s struggling middle class and working poor.
To the far right, they represent a huge pool of potential recruits, and its leaders have moved swiftly to try to capitalize on it.
Among them is Marine Le Pen, the National Front candidate thrashed by Macron in last year’s presidential election. She has offered encouragement to the Yellow Vests, directing her supporters and elected officials to take part in protests that she hailed as “a revolt” against Macron’s policy of helping only the rich.
On Friday, Le Pen visited Hénin-Beaumont, where Briois has been mayor for four years, to show her solidarity and join him at the official opening of the town’s Christmas market.
In an interview last month with Le Parisien newspaper, Le Pen mocked Macron’s government over its decision, since rescinded, to increase fuel taxes to raise money for eco-friendly projects — a move that enraged motorists and set off the protests.
She denounced the tax increase as “punitive environmentalism” promoted by a bohemian bourgeois Paris elite “shut in their pretty offices with nice moldings on their ceiling and absolutely no connection to the situation of our compatriots.”
But the National Front may be wielding a double-edge sword.
Should it help the Yellow Vests coalesce into a true political movement in France, that may turn out to be less blessing than curse for the far right.
Polls suggest that the National Front, renamed earlier this year as the Rassemblement National, might lose a significant number of votes in European elections in May if the Yellow Vests put forward their own candidates.
The anger coursing through French streets, which is now about much more than just the cost of driving, has created a highly combustible movement that stands against all political parties, including Le Pen’s, and threatens a plague on all their houses.
“We need to start again from zero,” said Stephane Bouillez, a long-distance truck driver who joined protesters in Hénin-Beaumont on Saturday. He said he could barely feed his family because of a severe back problem that left him unable to work. To make ends meet, he set up a small company that sells army surplus clothing but quickly found that taxes and other costs ate up all its revenue and left him burdened with debts.
Last year, Bouillez said, he voted for Le Pen, and he said he thinks that Briois has done a good job since he and his far-right colleagues took over City Hall after local elections in 2014. The National Front controls 29 of 35 council seats in a town that had been governed for decades by socialists.
But after taking part in weeks of demonstrations and freewheeling debate at protest camps, Bouillez decided it was time to break with all of France’s feuding political tribes. He scrawled that sentiment on the fluorescent yellow hazard vest that has been adopted as a symbol of the revolt: “France wake up! Stop being sheep.”
Whether the Yellow Vests will maintain their momentum and succeed in reshaping France is far from certain.
Appeals for calm after a terrorist attack in Strasbourg on Tuesday, cold weather, the approaching Christmas holidays and concessions by Macron are sapping the enthusiasm of some protesters. Demonstrations in Paris on Saturday were smaller and less violent than on earlier weekends.
But the fury on the street, which has set off a general debate about the country’s future unlike any since the student-led Paris protests of May 1968, has given sudden urgency to an old question raised by American revolutionaries in 1776 and then taken up with bloody zeal amid France’s 1789 revolution: Who really speaks for “the people.”
Feeling they have been left mute by a French political system built around a strong presidency and weak parliament, many Yellow Vests demand direct democracy through the holding of binding referendums on matters large and small.
And France’s far right is not the only political movement to see opportunity in the current foment. The radical left represented by the France Insoumise party, or France Unbowed, which is led by the anti-capitalist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has also tried to weld itself onto the Yellow Vest movement.
The far-right and left alike insist that each has long pursued a more equitable system free from the control of wealthy Paris-based elites out of touch with ordinary people.
“There is not just anger but rage,” said Briois, the mayor of Hénin-Beaumont, a town of 27,000 residents in the heart of what, before all the pits closed, was France’s coal country.
Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Observatory of Radical Politics at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, said Le Pen’s party was best positioned in the scramble now underway across the political spectrum to co-opt Yellow Vest anger.
But about the only thing the proudly leaderless and heterogeneous movement agrees on, aside from its loathing for Macron, is that it is “apolitical” — though it has lit a Catherine wheel firework of often conflicting political demands.
The Yellow Vest movement, Camus said, may be too divided to pose a direct electoral threat to the National Front. But he said the protests “are really something very new,” and potentially dangerous for all parties because people organized on social media, not through the political parties and trade unions that usually mobilize people onto the street.
The French Communist Party, once a powerful force in northern France, has watched aghast as protests, which it used to excel in organizing, have swept across the country.
David Noël, the party’s sole representative on the Hénin-Beaumont town council, said he had been too tied up with work as a professor to join the protesters. But he had a simple message for them: “You should join the Communist Party.”
Jean-Pierre Carpentier, a local activist in France Insoumise, also voiced dismay that protesters do not see that “what they want is what we have been promoting for years.” On Friday, he handed out tracts in the town’s market urging residents to join his party and mocking Macron. But he did not join a Yellow Vest rally a day later.
The far right has taken a different tack. It has sent its own activists to join — critics say infiltrate — the protests, pushing its line that immigration is the central problem and that Macron sold out the country by agreeing to a nonbinding U.N. pact on migration recently reached in Marrakech, Morocco.
“Macron betrayed France in Marrakech,” said Marie Therese Morieux, a roadside protester in Hénin-Beaumont and fervent fan of the National Front, whose husband works for the municipal government.
When a car drove by without honking its horn to show support for the Yellow Vests, she stopped it and asked the driver why. He explained that he supported Macron. “He must be sick,” Morieux told her colleagues.
David Moritz, a protester in Hénin-Beaumont, said he never shared the National Front’s hostility toward immigrants and would never vote for it no matter how much support it offers the Yellow Vests. France’s big problem, he said, is not immigration but old-boy networks that make it hard to get work.
He said he struggled for years to find a job because he didn’t have any connections and finally got hired by an American company that “did not care what color shoes I was wearing.” He supports France Insoumise.