Intolerance and conspiracy theories have haunted the margins of France’s “yellow vest” movement since the first protests over fuel taxes roused the discontented middle of French society.
The men and women in fluorescent safety vests blocking traffic and intimidating shoppers on the famed Champs-Elysees Avenue vent a range of grievances against the government.
But over 11 weeks of yellow vest protests, views from the fringes have bubbled through the diffuse and leaderless movement and have been amplified: anti-Semitic rants about banking, a Holocaust survivor harassed on the subway, assaults on journalists, and claims the government concocted terrorist attacks or deadly accidents to divert attention from the demonstrations.
There has been scattered violence at the protests, with clashes between participants and riot police, and authorities worry that the extremists have taken over the centre of the movement, risking a return to the darker episodes from France’s past.
On Saturday in Paris, a man in a yellow vest turned toward a journalist filming at the sidelines of an otherwise quiet match and hurled remarks.
No one in the march joined in, but neither did they contradict him.
In a more positive sign, a group of several hundred protesters forming a human chain in central Lyon inadvertently converged with a Holocaust commemoration that was planned separately by the city. After the boisterous protesters largely complied with a moment of silence for Holocaust victims, Deputy Mayor Jean-Dominique Durand, who organised the memorial, urged the group to “clean house” of any extremist views.
“It was an important moment to show that anti-Semitism has no place here,” said yellow vest protester Thomas Rigaud, according to Europe 1 radio.
Marchers at one of the first yellow vest rallies in Paris in November held the French flag aloft while chanting “This is our home!” – a double-edged slogan that resonates with the far-right National Rally party, whose leader Marine Le Pen calls it a “cry of love” for France; critics see only anti-immigrant overtones.
In December, a group of marchers in Paris’ bohemian Montmartre neighbourhood proffered an anti-Semitic salute. They sang lyrics associated with Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, a French comedian convicted several times of racism and anti-Semitism.
The hand gesture and song are both called the “quenelle,” with the gesture mimicking an inverted Nazi salute and the song hinting at Zionist plots. Dieudonne describes them as anti-establishment symbols.
On that same day, men in yellow vests harassed an elderly Holocaust survivor on a subway train when she asked them to stop making the gesture, and one of them replied that the gas chambers that had killed her father never existed.
A journalist who saw the exchange said no one took the woman’s side. France’s Interior Minister said the train operator was trying to identify the men, saying “whether hidden by a yellow vest or in the anonymity of Twitter, anti-Semitism must be fought with all strength.”
Some of France’s most notorious anti-Semitic personalities have been seen at the forefront of some of the Paris protests.
One of them, Herve Ryssen, appeared on the cover of the weekly Paris Match, facing police as he stood before the Arc de Triomphe. Ryssen has been convicted repeatedly of anti-Semitism and provoking acts of discrimination.
He was convicted again last week for Holocaust denial, a crime in France for decades that harkens back to the country’s history of surrendering French Jews to the occupying Nazis to be killed.