In our series of investigations about the detrimental influence of the russian secret services on France, we have repeatedly emphasized the results of such criminal activities. They represent a political disorientation of society, destabilization of the civil order, and a decline in the image and status of the legitimate government. Russia takes advantage of this, finding “gaps” in the minds of the doubters or the disillusioned in order to promote its narratives and propaganda later. Therefore, the Kremlin continues to finance pro-russian adherents in French politics and the establishment, as well as to promote the activities of its “tame” organizations, foundations and communities. At the right moment, russia, like some kind of virus, simply “infiltrates” the agenda that emerges in the process of artificially “undermining” the situation in European countries, and also turns its attention to a number of radical or marginal groups, offering its “help” in popularizing a movement, in exchange for forcing participants to engage in spreading Kremlin narratives and propaganda. This strategy has already been tested by russia in many EU countries. France is no exception.
Today we will examine in detail a movement whose path, in the beginning, did not imply any external intervention at all. It is important to understand and know its history in order to be aware of what is happening in France today, so as not to repeat it in the future, not only in France, but in other countries as well. This material will be a kind of “manual” on how not to engage in the development of a civil movement, whatever its ideological orientation, if you want it to remain independent and not become marginal.
“Yellow Vests” or How Social Protest Can Become a Source of russian Propaganda
The “Yellow Vests” (“Les Gilets jaunes”) movement began in France in the fall of 2018 as a large-scale social movement of protest against the economic policies of President Emmanuel Macron’s government. The name came from the fact that the protesters wore yellow reflective vests to identify themselves. It is important to remember that France is a democratic country, and if the participants of the movement had not violated the civil order, it could well have had a legal right to exist, because in a normal state only through a reasonable specification of their grievances people can influence the political process. The case of the Yellow Vests, unfortunately, was not an example of such democratically conscious behavior. From the first days, it became decentralized and rather chaotic in organization.
This spontaneous social movement had its origins in calls on social media to protest against rising automobile fuel prices resulting from an increase in the domestic energy consumption tax (TICPE). At the beginning, demonstrations took place mostly on Saturday in small towns and cities.
In a November 20, 2018 column published in Le Monde newspaper, sociologist Pierre Merle writes that “the yellow vest movement is reminiscent of the Jacqueries [medieval peasant uprisings in the villages] of pre-revolutionary France and the Revolutionary period. French historian Gérard Noiriel, known for his studies of the history of immigration, racism, and the working class in France, is the author of A Folk History of France. From the Hundred Years’ War to the Present,” disagreed with this assertion. He explained that “vests” and “Jacques” could not be compared, naming the main differences:
“The first difference from the medieval ‘jacquers’ is that the vast majority of persons … do not belong to the most disadvantaged classes of society. They come from the common people or the small middle class, who at least own a car. Whereas the “Great Jacqueria” of 1358 was a desperate move by the starving poor in the face of the Hundred Years’ War and the epidemic of the Black Death. The second and, in my view, most important difference concerns coordination. How do individuals come into contact with one another in a joint struggle? As far as I know, no one has emphasized what really constitutes the innovation of the “yellow vests,” namely the original national dimension of this spontaneous movement. We are actually talking about a protest that simultaneously unfolded all over France (including the overseas departments), but with very little local mobilization. In total, the day of the manifestation brought together less than 300 thousand people. This is a modest result when compared to the large popular demonstrations”.
At the beginning of the movement, the main figures who supported it were Eric Drouet, who launched the call for a rally on Facebook on November 17, 2018. For a brief characterization of this character, it can be noted that he has a weighty list of court cases on charges of disorderly conduct, and he was also supported by the “odious” Melanchon between 2018 and 2020. In addition, Drouet can be described as a common example of the average anarchist. However, his role as leader of a social movement was not recognized by the courts in 2020. The Paris Court of Appeals noted that he could have simply broadcast information to the media without being a rally organizer.
From a number of other “popular” personalities associated with the “vests,” the names of Priscilla Ludosky, Jacqueline Mouraud, Maxime Nicole, Fabrice Schlegel, Benjamin Cauchy, and Christophe Chalenson can be distinguished. They were all members of the French middle class. Political scientist Jerome Fourquet, director of the French Institute of Public Opinion, noting the decentralized nature of the movement, named symbolic figures such as Maxime Nicole, Ingrid Levasseur and Eric Drouet, who were representative of the low-wage professions that were actively mobilizing society.
It is also important to note that long before the publication of the investigations into the movement’s sponsorship channels and sources of influence, Noiriel asked a central question, at the heart of which lies one of the main differences between the “Jacques” and the “vests”: “Why have private channels, whose capital is owned by a handful of billionaires, now begun to encourage such popular movements?” This is the point of why the spontaneous movement soon lost touch with the historic protest character of the French – it lost its initiative and altruism after it received outside funding and began to be associated with influence from the Kremlin.
The decision to raise fuel prices in 2018 did not come out of nowhere for Emmanuel Macron’s government. It was prompted by France’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Noiriel noted:
“The uprisings against taxes have played an extremely important role in the popular history of France. I even believe that the French people were shaped by and in spite of taxes. It is not surprising, therefore, that the impetus for the Yellow Vests movement was the rejection of new taxes”.
However, the movement became broader and began to make demands for social justice and tax cuts. After that, participants developed slightly different kinds of demands, such as cuts in French military expenditures and the country’s exit from the EU. Rallies and protests began to gain momentum, going beyond what was allowed. While it began with the illegal blocking of roads and highways, later some participants began to provoke real conflicts. Violence appeared, followed by victims. These not numerous cases were loudly reported in the media: first in the French media, then in the world media. Some governments of other states (such as putin’s political apparatus) began to hyperbolize the number of victims, and to portray the response of the French government and police in a bad light, leading to the mobilization of radicals and, of course, marginal personalities like Melanchon, Le Pen and many others.
Compiling the results of various social surveys of the movement’s political directions, scholars Zakaria Bendali and Aldo Rubert noted that “the movement’s political orientation remains uncertain,” as interviewees were often confused in their answers or unable to articulate them clearly at all. The generalized ideas and goals of the participants were still more far-right in nature.
Noiriel explained why the movement began to spiral out of control and also predicted the failure of its support in the eyes of French society:
“Such movement is really doomed to fail, because those who animate it lack any tradition of autonomous struggle, any experience of civic activism. If it gains momentum, it will increasingly encounter opposition from citizens who do not want to be blocked, and these conflicts will be looped through all channels… The absence of a political frame capable of defining a collective strategy and of marking popular discontent in the language of the class struggle is another sign of weakness, because such a situation paves the way for any deviation…During the Yellow Vests action, xenophobic, racist, sexist and homophobic thoughts were heard. Of course, they were in the minority, but they only needed to hit the media (as happened the next day) to discredit the entire movement”.
Identifying ties with the Kremlin
There are several examples of russian influence on the Yellow Vests movement. In particular, the French Security Service stated that experts found attempts by russian organizations to interfere in the movement. It was found that certain russian media and social networks, such as Sputnik and RT, were supporting the “vests” by giving them publicity and spreading fake news about the political situation in France. Later, flags of the so-called fake-state formations of the occupied parts of the eastern regions of Ukraine began to appear at further actions of the movement, anti-European and anti-Ukrainian slogans were heard, and especially active participants made illegal trips to the occupied Crimea.
Against the backdrop of what was happening at the time, French President Emmanuel Macron refused to grant accreditation to journalists from russia to cover activities on the sidelines of the Elysee Palace, indicating that it was indeed detrimental to France. According to him, it is obvious that the radicalized Yellow Vests were “recommended” from abroad.
According to a 2019 report by the French Parliamentary Intelligence Commission on the activities of the Yellow Vests, russia had some influence on the Yellow Vests movement in France and may also have financed it.
It is also known that pro-russian Twitter accounts were spreading misinformation about the “Yellow Vests” protests in an attempt to criminally aggravate the situation and destroy the reputation of French President Emmanuel Macron. This was reported by Bloomberg with reference to the data of the Democracy Assurance Alliance, a unit of the German Marshall Fund in the United States that monitors pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts. Experts said that among the 600 Twitter accounts known to spread Kremlin views, the most popular hashtag was #giletsjaunes, the French name for the Yellow Vests protests. “The accounts analyzed by the Alliance tend to post news from the U.S. and the U.K. But in recent weeks they have been actively covering the protests in France. This indicator shows that there is an interest in intensifying the conflict,” – Alliance expert Bret Schaffer told the publication.
After the dramatic change in the rhetoric of the movement, French law enforcement, media, academics, and activists began to investigate who the “vests” were actually curated by. That’s when it was discovered that the movement received financial and informational support from russia.
At that time, information was actively disseminated that the French police were allegedly “on the brink of revolt and ready to support the protests”. But Shaffer noted that such claims were not supported by real facts, and the activity of russian bots resembled other disinformation campaigns. In addition, the vast majority of the links in the posts were to russian media news.
Kremlin dictator putin in 2019 at a meeting of the “Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights” mentioned the “Yellow Vests” actions in a dispute with russian “human rights activists,” provocatively stating: “you and me do not want events like Paris”. He used to say similar phrases when referring to the theme of the Revolution of Dignity, which took place also in Crimea, which is occupied today. The only difference is that the Ukrainian Revolution was caused by the criminal Yanukovich regime, Moscow’s interference in Ukrainian domestic politics, and the Kremlin’s preparations in December 2013 to carry out the criminal “Crimean Spring” operation. Ukrainians did not want an illegal takeover of the country by an aggressor, but the “vests,” which at first advocated “social opposition to reform,” soon fell under the control of marginal forces and pro-russian influence adherents, causing the rallies to be provocative and violent.
Researchers from the French Institute of Geopolitics, Colin Gerard, Guillem Marotte, and Lockman Salamatian, studied in detail how russian media through political communities in social networks replicated the Yellow Vests, noting separately in the summary that russia has been engaged in such criminal activity since 2010, and in 2016 it affected the United States during the presidential election campaign, when the “odious” Donald Trump won. Through Streaming API, they were able to link the pro-russian accounts that promoted the Yellow Vests to communities in the French-language segment of Twitter that spread the necessary Kremlin narratives during the presidential campaign in which Emmanuel Macron became president. Through manual analysis, they were able to group fifteen pro-russian communities into four main categories:
The first category contains communities organized around media accounts. It consists of local and national media, web media and citizen media, which represent 16.78% of the accounts in the graph. Among them is a community of 3,642 accounts united around the journalist France Bleu Savoie, who published a video with a scene of violence during the blockade of the Yellow Vests in Chambery on November 17, it was retweeted 4,300 times. This category also includes the two communities clustered around RT and Sputnik, which together account for 26.83% of the accounts on the chart.
The second category concentrates communities clustered around accounts of extreme right-wing figures or parties, such as the National Front, Patriots or Debut France, which account for 4.19% of the accounts on the graph. In a community close to the RN, there are accounts of supporters of François Asselino’s UPR and accounts related to Alain Soral’s Equality and Reconciliation movement. Finally, there is the community of accounts close to the extreme left and France Insoumise, which accounts for 16.59% of accounts.
The third category includes communities clustered around accounts of supporters of the Yellow Vests movement, which account for 11.6% of accounts. Among them are accounts of regional Yellow Vests collectives that relay information about demonstrations and videos of various actions. One such community clusters around a Spanish-language account that supports the Vests.
Finally, the fourth category groups communities clustered around accounts of members or supporters of En Marche! which accounts for 16.26% of the accounts on the graph. There are also two communities that do not have a clearly defined political orientation and represent 3.85% of the accounts on the graph.
As a result, the researchers drew some important conclusions:
“…community detection reveals four main categories of associations that have interacted with russian media content. These are the extreme right and extreme left, the traditional russian-funded media, the Republican Party, and finally the Yellow Vests and their supporters. We observed a relative fragmentation of far-right accounts, grouped into several communities representing different political currents (RN, Debout France, Les Patriotes, UPR). The remaining far-right accounts seem to be aggregated in the communities of RT and Sputnik”.
In the investigation, the authors also noted:
“We believe that the russian media’s coverage of the Yellow Vests movement on Twitter allowed them to become more established in the French media landscape… We believe that the influence that russia had on the Yellow Vests movement was not, until proven otherwise, the result of a concerted and coordinated operation by the russian state.”
The Insider, which positions itself as “in opposition to the russian regime,” published an article on November 18, 2019, with documents confirming the Kremlin’s close contacts with politicians who supported the Yellow Vests in France, as well as the far-right Alternative for Germany party. They were letters from Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee (better known for his sexual harassment, as the paper noted), in which he asked russian consulates to grant visas to a number of European politicians. Among them are nine citizens of Germany, 25 citizens of France, as well as citizens of Spain, Italy, Latvia and other countries.
First on the list of invited Frenchmen were Michel Larive, a member of the marginal leftist “Unruly France” party and a social activist, later Melanchon’s “Left” candidate Maxime da Silva – both were active participants in the “vests”.
Also on November 11, 2019, the aggressor’s foreign ministry published on social media a meeting between Lavrov and “representatives of French civil society” at the russian ambassador’s residence in Paris. The Insider reported that the topic of the discussion and the composition of the participants were not published. However, two photos published by Zakharova show some of the functionaries. So, there were some fake “representatives” of “civil society” in France, according to the subjective opinion of the Kremlin. At the head of the table sat Dmitri de Koshko – a regular commentator on russian state channels and such institutions as the “Academy of Geopolitics in Paris”, where there was active Kremlin propaganda, narratives about non-existent “Nazis” in Ukraine and “threats” from Muslims in France, as well as about the allegedly “russian” Crimea. Another invitee was Olivier Beruillet, a blogger who created the website Les Crises, which promoted anti-migrant, anti-European, and anti-Ukrainian narratives, as well as suing the author of Cecile Vesey, “Kremlin Networks in France”. The meeting was also attended by the blogger Bertrand P. As the publication pointed out, his nickname is Sky, and his real name is unknown. He kept the account ThinkerView, where he actively advocated for the Yellow Vests revenge, against the French authorities and the EU.
Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine: the “position” of the movement
On December 8, 2018, the Security Service of Ukraine stated on its Facebook page that the FSB and the aggressor’s GRU may be involved in the protests involving the “Yellow Vests” movement. The Ukrainian agency published a photo showing two members of the movement wearing yellow vests with the flag of the illegal “DNR” quasi-establishment, which since 2014 is known to be sponsored by Moscow. On the left you can see Sorlin Fabris, a member of the “International Analytical Center Catechon,” which operates under the auspices of the sponsor of the fake-republic, Moscow Orthodox oligarch Konstantin Malofeev and the St. Basil Foundation, which he heads. On the right side of the photo is Xavier Moreau, an illegal observer at the fake “elections” in the occupied Certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. He still resides in russia and has been a russian citizen since 2013. He is also the founder of the European Center for Strategic Analysis and a functionary of the criminal association Vostok France – Solidarity Donbass, which is still under the control of the russian special services. According to the SSU, they both participated in military actions against Ukraine in the Donbass by russian militants.
“Today, the same radicals under the flags of the so-called “DNR” and under the supervision of officers of the FSB and the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the russian Armed Forces are already taking a “practical exam.” Behind the backs of peaceful protesters, they resort to organizing riots and acts of violence in France,” – the SSU reported.
According to SSU information, russian special services organized similar provocations in Belgium, Germany, Bulgaria, Poland and in other countries, where “Yellow Vests” movement actions or rallies attended by its members took place. There was active coverage of the danger from the movement in Canada.
During the January 12, 2019 “vests” demonstration in Paris, something unusual was caught on television cameras. The Yellow Vests had their own service, which supposedly monitored “safety”. Those who belonged to it could be identified by their white armbands. One of them, wearing a French paratrooper beret, tried to “control the column of protesters” in the video.
The man in the beret turned out to be Victor-Alfonso Lenta. He had been seen as a member of russian fighters in the Donbass earlier.
“When we wrote about his activities in the Donbass, we learned that he was a member of the “Continental Unity” militant group. This group, which included foreigners, had a very bad reputation. They were talked about as really violent people. We have no confirmation, but we also received information from his colleagues, who were angry at him for torturing people in Donbass,” – French journalist Paul Gogo, who investigated the activities of his compatriots in criminal fighting groups under the patronage of the russia in the area of occupied parts of Donetsk region, told Donbass.Reality. Victor-Alfonso Lenta was among these formations.
Gogo also noted: “The French who came to the Donbass were members of radical groups, radical political parties. Some were extreme leftists, but most were extreme rightists. They came to Donbass to fight against capitalism, against oligarchs, against NATO, against European values. Against everything they hate. That’s why, I think, now we see some of them among the protesters in Paris”.
Thus, the conclusion is obvious: not only did russia use the movement to popularize its narrative of Kremlin anti-European policies, but it deliberately emphasized anti-Ukrainian propaganda against the background of the fact that the movement participants were decentralized as much as possible, which influenced their propensity for violence, far-right ideas and a lack of critical thinking. It is not known how the mercenaries joined the ranks of the Yellow Vests. This could have happened either after their participation in the criminal military aggression of the russian federation against Ukraine, or during the rallies, when the russian special services could have directly recruited French citizens, taking advantage of the chaotic nature of the events. The second option is very plausible, because a self-proclaimed “embassy” of the so-called “DNR” quasi-formation, led by Hubert Fayard, had been operating in France since 2017.
A new wave of protests: the participation of “vests” and a full-scale war of the russian federation against Ukraine
After the active “surge” of the movement in 2019, the period from 2020 to 2021 can be characterized by an “invasion of anti-vaccinators,” as the global pandemic COVID-19 was actively raging at that time. The “vests” opposed both quarantine and the mask regime. After the release of the American Pfizer vaccine, members of the movement began to protest against vaccination as well, which of course was repressed by Kremlin propaganda on russian TV channels.
However, time passed and one of the worst years in the history of the European continent was approaching. On February 24, 2022, russia fully invaded Ukraine. Emmanuel Macron, in the run-up to the attack, tried to hold a series of talks with putin, believing he could change his mind. That didn’t work. On February 24, the French government and citizens came out in support of Ukraine. From this point on, a new phase of russian attempts to undermine the situation inside France begins.
While the russian invaders were engaged in the genocide of the Ukrainian people, pro-Kremlin adherents began a campaign against Emmanuel Macron in the run-up to the presidential election. We wrote earlier about how Marine Le Pen tried to “snatch” victory. However, the French chose Macron for the second time, despite the Kremlin’s best efforts to prevent this. The “yellow vests” failed to generate a large-scale resonance in society, and attempts by the radical left to go to rallies – ended up with nothing. The police quickly dispersed the protesters, who wanted to once again turn the capital of Paris into an arena for unrest.
Throughout 2022, Emmanuel Macron stepped up his support for Ukraine in absolutely every way. Pro-russian adherents tried to mobilize society with “scare stories” about the “collapse of the French economy” amid global sanctions against russia. They did it not without the help of the Kremlin. However, they were able to undermine the situation only in winter because Macron’s government began to implement a new pension reform. It was necessary to improve the well-being of the French as well as to prevent the depletion of the pension funds. Therefore, the retirement age was to become higher. This became a “casus belli” for pro-russian functionaries, organizations, and marginal movements like the Yellow Vests.
At the beginning of January 2023, amid controlled “protests”, experts noted that the Kremlin is gradually losing influence on the “Yellow Vests”, as the number of protesters in Paris was about 500 people, as we wrote earlier. They were later seen at the protests that were announced for January 23, but were held on January 19, the day the European Parliament passed a Resolution calling for a special tribunal against the criminal leadership of russia and personally against putin and his satellite Lukashenko. Factors of the “russian trail” and the lucky “coincidence” have begun to be investigated by French law enforcers. Eyewitnesses and journalists reported seeing about 400-600 Yellow Vests participants.
A small number of “vests” were observed at the Jan. 23 rally, but on social media, participants in the movement called for riots on Jan. 31 as well.
In February 2023, The Journal of Intelligence, Conflict, and Warfare published an article by University of Maryland researcher Carolyn Or Bueno on the criminal influence of russia on the Canadian Freedom Convoy 2022. She was able to prove russia’s purposeful influence on the Freedom Convoy through the media and social media, and russia’s involvement in the convoy through open coverage in russian state media and on proxy sites linked to Kremlin. Or Bueno pointed to the connection between the organizers of the Freedom Convoy 2022 and previous Canadian “Yellow Vests” movements, which were “inspired” by French supporters, and United We Roll. Against the backdrop of what was happening in France, she noted that behind such “initiatives” “masks a rising tide of right-wing populism imbued with a toxic mix of conspiracy theories, disinformation, discontent and scapegoating, which now dominates the political narrative and leads to increasingly inflammatory rhetoric that at times has spilled over into violence.”
Or Bueno, using the examples of Black Lives Matter and the Yellow Vests in France, explained that the russia sees these protest movements as an opportunity to exacerbate social divisions and sow discord as part of its asymmetrical offensive against Western democracies.
Throughout series of controlled “rallies,” Melanchon has repeatedly called for marginal movements to “mobilize”. However, it is worth noting that, for the most part, there were fewer and fewer Yellow Vests participants.
On April 12 in Amsterdam, two people, a man and a woman, tried to break through to French President Emmanuel Macron as he was getting out of his car near the University of Amsterdam. The man allegedly shouted the slogan of the marginal “Yellow Vests” movement: “We’re here, even if Macron doesn’t want us to be!” The French president’s guards reacted in time. Meanwhile, Macron remained calm and continued his conversation with a representative of the Dutch government. Prior to this incident, unknown persons also tried to prevent the French President from starting his speech at the Nexus Institute in The Hague by shouting various biased slogans, as reported by BFMTV. Emmanuel Macron decided to use a policy of “calm response” because all sorts of marginalists, above all, needed to make the president and his government “nervous”. This is why at the beginning of the history of the Yellow Vests, the movement had much more power than it has now. The Kremlin took advantage of this, and so Macron drew a number of conclusions. “This is democracy, and democracy is exactly the place where you can protest and allow these kinds of speeches,” – he said after what happened in The Hague. Subordination is the main key to dealing with the marginalized people.
France’s support for Ukraine continues, but the protest movement can regain strength at any minute, hiding behind “social interests” in order to try to spoil the countries’ bilateral relations, as well as criminally turn French citizens against Ukraine. This is what the pro-Kremlin adherents seek to do. However, just as in the history of the “Yellow Vests,” one can observe the gradual decline of russia’s influence on such marginal movements. The “vests” could indeed have become a “social movement” if they had had sincere interests and goals from the very beginning. Democracy is an instrument of negotiation between the government and citizens, whatever their views. But there is no place in this dialogue for violence, illegal actions, and certainly not for the influence of a foreign state that provoked a war on the European continent 70 years after the end of the bloodiest war in history.
Nina Yelanskaya, ARC correspondent.