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Opinion Yellow Vest movement highlights France’s problem with anti-Semitism

A protester wears a vest reading 'Turn off your TV, put on your vest' during a demonstration against the privatization of Aeroport de Paris (ADP) in Paris on March 13, 2019.


Marc Weitzmann’s latest book is Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us).

After years of rising anti-Semitism, followed by an unprecedented wave of terror attacks, France – long familiar with popular protests of all kinds – is experiencing another outbreak of protests. At once both strange and new, it is also deeply bound into a strain of anti-Semitic ideology, this time born in France and championed in recent years by the likes of Steve Bannon.

The Yellow Vest movement started in October as an online Facebook protest against a new green/eco-friendly tax on the price of fuel imposed by the French government. The cause soon expanded from the price of gas to other seemingly unrelated issues, such as the “dignity” of the French worker, to a more general criticism of “the system” and poor living standards. By November, the movement had moved offline to street protests blocking intersections across the country. Every Saturday thereafter, there were large, often violent demonstrations in Paris and other major cities. Officially leaderless, politically undefined and with no connection to traditional unions or political parties, the Yellow Vest protests appeared strangely unprecedented in a country otherwise known for its culture of protests and strikes.

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The roots of this populist rage were, and remain, as deep in France as they are in the United States. As in the U.S., it draws less on a clear ideology than on a general feeling of having been taken advantage of – by what Americans used to call “limousine liberals,” and the French – who practically invented the category – “la gauche caviar” (the caviar left). Although the Yellow Vest protesters define themselves as the “real French people,” the movement seems to gather downtrodden, lower middle class, mostly white members, living in ex-urban areas – in other words, the French equivalent of President Donald Trump’s electorate. Mr. Bannon drew a clear parallel in remarks made on Dec. 8, on the eve of one of the most violent riots in Paris, when speaking from Brussels at a gathering of far-right political parties that included Marine Le Pen, he publicly rejoiced: “Paris is burning, London is in crisis and the Marrakesh global compact on migration is dead before it’s signed.”

While the compact is relatively unknown in the United States – approved in December by 164 countries, the pact seeks to control and ultimately end migration in Europe – Mr. Bannon was intimately familiar with it as one of the main rallying cries of the Yellow Vests and the nationalists alike. In his mind at least, the Yellow Vest protesters represent the “real” French people in the same way that readers of far-right online publication Breitbart are “true” Americans.

It is interesting to note that this obsession with national “authenticity” has its ideological origin in France. Namely, in the rhetoric of the French newspaper l’Action Française, a hugely successful anti-Semitic newspaper created in 1898 by the journalist Charles Maurras. (In 2016, Mr. Bannon reportedly told a French official in Washington, “We are at the end of the Enlightenment, have you read Charles Maurras?”) Gifted with an innate talent for intellectual marketing, Mr. Maurras may have been the first in Europe to recast intellectual quarrels against a cosmopolitan elite of the Enlightenment in an entirely new way, focusing on nationalistic issues. He made l’Action Française a media success by mixing high-culture charges against modernity with the low, popular anger against international finance and capitalism then personified by Jewish bankers. It is thanks to him that the Rothschilds became everywhere a coded formula to rage against the capitalist system, the Jews who were said to control it and the Republic under which those foreign influences were plunging the country into a decadent cosmopolitism. L’Action Française’s standpoint culminated during the Vichy regime, and survived semi-underground during the postwar years in political currents known as the New Right, before being resurrected across the continent in the 1990s, due in part to the Russian “philosopher” Alexander Dugin and his French connections.

Today, Mr. Bannon’s obsession with George Soros mirrors L’Action Française’s narrative about the Rothschilds. That Emmanuel Macron did work for that bank before entering politics fuses the Yellow Vest anger in vast proportions. That Mr. Macron was bought by the Rothschilds and that he was “a whore of the Jews," in today’s Yellow Vest parlance, was present as far back as the presidential campaign in both Ms. Le Pen and the left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s speeches, and in Russian controlled websites, in May, 2016.

In addition to the surge of anti-Semitic slogans that connects aspects of U.S. populism with current protests in France, several videos reminiscent of the American conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate posted on the Yellow Vest’s official Facebook page claim that, in addition to Jewish international bankers, Mr. Macron has surrounded himself with “rich pedophile billionaires buying children through the darknet.”

But this is where the similarities end. The latest and most-prominent eruption of anti-Semitism occurred on Feb. 16, when the conservative philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, although himself a supporter of the Yellow Vests, was accosted as he was going home by several Yellow Vest protesters, with insults such as “Dirty Jew" and “return to Tel Aviv." The incident, recorded and posted on social media, led to a national scandal that resulted in a huge counter demonstration against anti-Semitism the following Tuesday, which gathered most of the political class on the Place de la Republique.

At the end of the week, as a direct result of that demonstration against anti-Semitism, authorities announced a sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents – this in a country where the number of anti-Jewish incidents jumped 74 per cent in 2018. In Garge-lès-Gonesses, for instance – a suburb that on several occasions has given a warm welcome to the anti-Semitic comedian and Yellow Vest supporter Dieudonné – two men attacked a woman, saying, “We’re gonna burn you, dirty Jew!” In another suburb, Le Pre-Saint-Gervais, three men who stole the cellphone of a Jewish teenager allegedly shouted, “Are you ready to die?” New anti-Semitic tags were also found in Paris and in the wealthy suburb of Versailles.

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A few days later, the Yellow Vest protester responsible for the Finkielkraut incident was identified as Benjamin Weller, the 36-year-old owner of a cellphone store in the city of Mulhouse, and a convert to Salafism known for his radical views on Islam. The person responsible for swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans in Versailles was also apprehended: He was a 65-year-old married man, employed as a financial consultant at the Regional Council of Les Yvelines. When he was asked why he had scrawled “Juden Rauss,” as well as “Macron in the oven,” and “Macron in Dachau,” alongside the swastikas, he said he did not know. Although not himself a Yellow Vest, he added, he could identify with some of their claims. “These images of violence each Saturday on TV made me feel I should speak out, too.”

Where Mr. Bannon saw a rage in the United States whose intensity was otherwise invisible, France, so far, is going the other way around. Mr. Bannon’s genius consisted in articulating popular rage, like Howard Beale in the movie Network, by giving it a political name and a face in the person of Donald Trump. France’s rage is almost a tradition. Although France literally invented hateful, anti-Semitic populism in the first decades of the 20th century, it took a foreign prompt, the Nazi occupation, for that current to come to power with the Vichy regime. Today, even though populism has won in French mass culture, it has not found its political candidate, not even in Ms. Le Pen, who is cautious enough not to present herself as the candidate of the Yellow Vests, despite knowing her politics align with theirs. The result of this paradox is the strange feeling that a ghostly anger invades the streets every weekend – a wandering hate for which no one in particular is responsible.

And so the word “Juden” is found tagged on the storefront of the sandwich store Bagelstein in the aftermath of the Yellow Vest demonstration of March 9; the tag “Macron Rothchild, whore of the universal kikes” is discovered the following day the wall of the daily Le Monde; swastikas are found nearby, covering two portraits of Simone Veil, the Auschwitz survivor, and former health minister; and trees that had been planted in the suburb of Saint-Geneviève-des-Bois in memory of Ilan Halimi, a young Jew tortured and killed in 2006, were vandalized the same day.

None of these incidents have been attributed to the Yellow Vests. And yet, they are consistent with what many Yellow Vests have expressed at some point or other since the movement started.

It is time, then, to point out the most significant difference between these parallel situations in the United States and in France. While Robert Bowers, who is accused of murdering 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, is a white supremacist, every Jewish person killed in France for being a Jew since the early 2000s has been killed by Muslims. These murders, and the numerous terror attacks in France, constitute the background in front of which the Yellow Vest’s anti-Semitism is unfolding organically. Protesters beheading an effigy of Mr. Macron, the easiness with which anti-Semitic slogans are used, a recurrent violence – none of this would have been possible in pre-terror France.

Where could a Benjamin Weller exist, both a Salafi and a committed Yellow Vest from the start, if not here? For years, Salafi populist propaganda in France has argued against “the democracy of the homosexuals” manipulated by the “globalists” in the name of “authentic” Islam and “the true Muslims.” It is the convergence of all these strains of hate that has given France its particular intensity today – and makes the whole situation so dangerous. As the 65-year-old Versailles tagger said to the police: “I do not know why I started, but after I did, I could not find a way to stop. It was as if drawing these tags allowed me to externalize all the hate that I felt in me for so long.”

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A convergence that the United States has not experienced so far. “So far” because Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s recent remarks on the dual "allegiance” of the Jews, in their echoing of David Duke’s rhetoric, seem to indicate that this may change. If some Americans were indeed tempted to give in to this kind of thinking, they would be well advised to look again at France’s mess today.

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