Opinion

How Putin and the Far Right Played the Paris Yellow Vests Protests

Russia didn’t trigger the Gilets Jaunes. But Putin and the far right want to see Paris burn and Europe weakened and divided, so they jumped at the chance to contaminate and manipulate them

A Gilets Jaunes/Yellow Vest protestor stands near a fire in Bordeaux, southwestern France, on the sidelines of a protests against rising living costs.December 8, 2018
AFP

It's no surprise foreign observers have a difficult time separating the truth about France’s Gilets Jaunes protests from the tide of online misinformation and deliberate disinformation about them when the same is true for French citizens themselves. Four out of every five tweets I’ve seen myself are misleading or false.

I assume most people are passing on this nonsense unwittingly. But there is a significant contingent doing it on purpose. 

In France, militants from both the far right and far left are attempting to harness what started as an authentic protest movement to serve their own ends. Many of the online supporters of the Gilets Jaunes, the Yellow Vests – demonstrators named after the reflective jackets worn as an identifying uniform - are either deliberately lying or genuinely unable to distinguish lies from the truth. 

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Russia is shoveling enough manipulated excrement into the Internet that it might clog the pipes. Then there is the American alt-right, their enthusiastic amplifiers, spreading Russian propaganda, and hardly for the first time

I've seen countless videos of blood and violence on Twitter and Facebook labeled, "Gilets Jaunes in France," or "POLICE VIOLENCE, FRANCE!!!" On even superficial inspection, it's clear these are videos that weren’t shot in France. I’ve seen hundreds of photos that purport to be Paris, but don’t depict Paris. 

The Hamilton 68 Dashboard, which tracks accounts on Twitter that reliably echo the Kremlin narrative. These hashtags suggest Moscow’s priorities on December 8th, the height of recent protests:

The Hamilton 68 Dashboard which tracks Russian influence operations on Twitter, for December 8, 2018
Twitter

But of the Twitter hashtags that were really trending in France at the same time, only one concerned the Gilet Jaunes (#8December). The other trending tweets concerned football, save the third-most popular hashtag, about the Climate March. This also took place on December 8. It attracted more people than the Gilet Jaunes protest.  

Why is Russia doing this? The aim of Russia’s misinformation is to heighten the contradictions, as Lenin once put it. 

The Kremlin’s news organs urge the Yellow Vests on to ever-more spectacular violence - then portrays them as a maddened horde.

Sputnik dusts off the Cominform’s greatest hits: The French people "speaking out...at the injustice of capitalism…governments across Europe are wary of a tidal wave of people power [and..] out of desperation to retain their privileges and wealth, go full fascism. The liberal mask of Western democracies appears to be slipping to reveal the brute force beneath."

RT is luxuriating in horrific accounts of police brutality, then back comes Sputnik, accusing the Gilet Jaunes of creating an "hyper-favorable playground" for terrorism in the wake of the later attack in Strasbourg. (For this jewel, Sputnik interviewed a superannuated French general once convicted of illegal surveillance.)

Russia is an imperial kleptocracy running a state-controlled energy empire. It seeks to divide and conquer the West, turn the feuding nations of Europe into subservient vassals, and leave the United States isolated, friendless, and irrelevant.

The Kremlin and Gazprom (same thing) use a three-part strategy of disaggregation, co-option, and pre-emption.

Their goal is to discourage the EU from forming a coherent, common energy policy. They seek to disaggregate Europe’s governments by breaking up the EU or making it unworkable, then entice its governments into bilateral deals. They co-opt strong domestic players into joint ventures and turn them into powerful Russian lobbyists: Think of Gazprom hiring former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. They pre-empt the emergence of competing sources of supply, from Libya to Bolivia. 
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Clearly, if a group of French protesters emerges with talking points that sound as if the Kremlin wrote their script (not only are they demanding cheaper fossil fuels, they seek France’s withdrawal from NATO), it’s inevitable that the Kremlin will find this exciting and pleasing - and will try to amplify the protesters’ voices. 

This is all the more so because the Kremlin dislikes Macron, who isn’t as keen to turn France into a Kremlin satrapy as his far-left and far-right rivals: both are prepared to swear their eternal troth to Moscow.

The Kremlin would much prefer to deal with the far-left Mélenchon or the far-right Le Pen, and in either case, a much weakened France. One of them could be the beneficiary of this if Macron doesn't survive.

This is not to say that the Kremlin wrote the Gilets Jaunes' script. The protests and riots are organic and real; they devolve from serious, longstanding discontent in France’s rural periphery, which feels poorly served and squeezed by the state. 

There is no evidence that Russia conceived of this uprising. Nor is there evidence that it’s dangling the protesters’ puppet-strings. I stress this because the idea has become another lunatic Twitter conspiracy theory, complete with a video of a man speaking Russian, in Paris, and a caption that declares him to be a "known Russian intelligence agent."

Russia does not have the ability to conjure up a movement like this ex nihilo. What they have the power to do - and what they do, without a doubt; indeed, you can watch them do it in real time - is scan the horizon for conflicts and divisions in open societies, then try to exacerbate them on social media

And it works. 

If you don’t think it has any influence, or if you doubt it could make the difference in a close election closer to your home, watch what they're doing in France. If you have no dog in this fight, and even if you do, watch it dispassionately. 

Protesters wearing yellow vests (gilets jaunes) stand near the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris, on December 8, 2018.
AFP

When French people see online videos headlined "French police brutality," many fall for it, even if the video wasn't shot in France. They retweet it and believe it. These videos outrage and politicize; they engender further distrust among people so saturated in distrust of the authorities that Gilets Jaunes spokesmen are prepared to believe the French secret services staged a deadly terrorist attack in Strasbourg themselves.

There has indeed been violence. But lurid and exaggerated descriptions serve a useful purpose to propagandists: when, for example, people in the UK see photos of riots and violence on Facebook (no matter their provenance) with the words "Terrifying!!!" and "France is falling apart!" they are much more likely to retweet the next meme: "Thank God for Brexit!!!" 

One suspects those memes were not created by men and women with a deep and genuine concern for public order in France.

Russian bots and trolls are working this angle hard. But the Gilet Jaunes themselves are an ample font of misinformed nonsense: The director of Conspiracy Watch, Rudy Reichstadt, lamented that, “like  Donald Trump’s constituents, some yellow jackets have a high permeability to conspiracy theories; with no movement spokesperson to clearly distancing them from it.” That’s led to a surge in anti-vaxxer slogans and interest in chemtrails. 

Circulating widely - and inevitably, in such a climate - are anti-Semitic theories, memes and videos.

In an AFP street interview, one Yellow Vest described Macron as a pawn of "Soros, Rothschild and Goldman Sachs." American neo-Nazis are cuckoo for the Gilets Jaunes, though they might lose their enthusiasm were they to meet them and discover how many in their ranks are dedicated leftist Black Blocs, a cross-European movement that combats fascism with vandalism and throwing projectiles at the police.

President Trump listens to television broadcasters who read out this misinformation and exaggerations and believes the protests here were sparked by the Paris climate agreement and that people here are chanting his name

This is not merely untrue, but nonsensical: Most of the Gilet Jaunes profess devout concern about climate change. Apocalyptic thinking, and the idea that mankind is a stain on the planetary Garden of Eden fit in perfectly with every other aspect of their worldview. 

The uprising had nothing to do with the climate treaty. One of the most ancient of French traditions is hatred of the gabelle: French peasants have been violently objecting to taxation since the mid-14thcentury. What they want - to the extent their demands are coherent - is a tax structure that soaks the rich. 

And to a last, they find Trump preposterous. Among their demands is France’s withdrawal from NATO and the end of all French military commitments overseas. Why on earth would they want Trump?

But Trump managed to plant this idea in people's minds to the point that even journalists who spend their days and weeks debunking Trump tweets half-consciously absorbed it - and began writing serious articles what this uprising means for global climate policy. 

That's another key to the way disinformation works: You put out an idea that's complete nonsense. People know it’s nonsense. But somehow they can't get the thought and its associations out of their heads. 

This the great irony of the age of the cell phone and the Internet. There are cameras everywhere. Every minute of our life is under surveillance. We can communicate instantly with every participant in this event.

But the only way to know what’s real is to come on over and look with your own eyes. Epistemologically, we're back in the 18th century. Let’s just hope that online agitprop from ill-wishers exacerbating real-life violence don’t force Europe and its allies into a full political and social regression too.

Claire Berlinski is a freelance writer who lives in Paris. Her forthcoming book is The Rise of the New Caesars and the Death of Freedom. Twitter: @ClaireBerlinski