Over the past few weeks, Paris and France at large have been rocked by the gillet jaunes ('yellow vests'), who have taken to the streets. The protestors were ostensibly motivated by French President Emmanuel Macron's fuel tax, that puts disproportionate stress on rural French citizens who can't rely on public transportation.
Protests are nothing new to France, from the French Revolution to May 1968 to the 1832 Paris Uprising depicted in Les Miserables. Given this history, the French government is well-practiced at acquiescing to the demands of protestors, and Macron has already repealed the unpopular tax.
But to assume that the Yellow Vests are France's equivalent of the 'Occupy' movement that sprung up in the wake of the 2008 crash in America, ignores some very worrying factors.
Surveys have indicated that the majority of the protestors supported far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in 2017, as opposed to only 20% for the far left's Jean-Luc Melenchon. The list of demands they released this weekend is a confusing mishmash of policies from both ends of the spectrum, the majority of which, however, are far to the right.
Russia's expertise: social media disinformation
Given we know that Russia was involved in Brexit, the 2016 US presidential election, and an attempt to attack the election Macron won through the use of social media, it is worth investigating whether they had anything to do with the Yellow Vest protests. The protests, driven mostly by social media, have caused significant upheaval in France, and may well benefit the Kremlin.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced yesterday that the government would investigate Russian interference in the protests given Russian news and social media have overtly sided with the protestors against Macron and the Fifth Republic.
Russian state media has covered the protests with intense interest. According to Byline, as of December 7th, RT has covered the Yellow Vests 170 times in its English-language broadcasting service, and 1,230 times in its French arm. Its sister organization, Sputnik, has covered it 3,010 times in its French service.
Hamilton 68, which tracks Russian Twitter activity, has reported upticks in tweets and hashtags mentioning the protests. The top trending hashtag today is #gilletjaunes, having been used by Russian accounts more than 200 times in the last 48 hours. When these accounts tweet or post links to news articles, they almost always come from discredited, far-right outlets. Both yesterday and today, the top three domains for links were Sputnik, RT, and Fox News, with the far right, conspiracy-laden Voice of Europe and libertarian/anarchist Zero Hedge trading 4th and 5th.
Many of these accounts are trafficking in misleading stories about the protests. Over the past week, Sputnik and RT made a video of a police officer taking off his helmet in front of a protestor go viral, saying it was a sign of solidarity between the two groups. In reality, the policeman took his helmet off in exchange for the protestors to disperse from the area. Sputnik corrected their version of the story; RT stood by theirs.
Russian Advocates For The Protests
One of the Yellow Vests' biggest Russian promoters is Alexander Dugin, a Russian neo-fascist philosopher also known as "Putin's Brain" given his ideas have been widely accepted by his administration. Dugin has written about the protests for Fort Russ, a Belgrade-based publication that functions as a mouthpiece for RT/Sputnik. This Facebook post, which is laden with anti-Semitic dog whistles ("Rothschild," "Soros," "Globalization"), offers a glimpse into his philosophy:
In addition, Russian reporter Lisa Peskova has been reporting on the protests from Paris. Peskova is the daughter of Dmitry Peskov, Putin's press secretary who recently handed over emails from Trump lawyer Michael Cohen concerning a meeting Cohen tried to arrange with him in January 2016. Her Instagram post at one of the protests wishes readers a happy Black Friday before writing that in France, it has been a "black weekend."
What Russia Has to Gain
A divided France and a weakened or ousted Macron benefits Vladimir Putin greatly. If far-right movements gain more power in France, they could endanger their membership in both the European Union and NATO, further destabilizing the postwar order that has kept the peace in Europe for more than 70 years. It would also threaten the viability of Macron's proposed "European Army," that Putin views as a direct threat.
It should be noted that as of this writing, Russia has denied involvement in the protests, with Peskov saying they "have not...[and] don't plan to interfere in the domestic affairs of any country, including France."
However, in a time when far-right movements have been on the rise, France has held its own as a bastion for internationalism and democracy. The Yellow Vest protests have proven that France too is susceptible to the same far-right forces that took hold in the U.S. and UK these past few years. We know at the very least that pro Kremlin media outlets and Twitter accounts are hugely amplifying the Yellow Vest protests, and it would be unwise to dismiss the theory they helped foment them in the first place.