PARIS — Two hours before the protests in Paris even started on Saturday, a “Gilet Jaune” — or Yellow Vest — demonstrator named Julian Bresson went live on his Facebook page. In the video, he casually says hi to the camera before turning it to reveal a police van full of fellow Yellow Vests. Several of the other arrested protesters also have their phones up, presumably going live on their own feeds.
“So, a little Facebook Live, live from the cops’ van,” Bresson says in French. “We’ve already been arrested and for nothing! Only because we had helmets. So as a preventive thing, preventive, you get arrested.”
Then all the Yellow Vests start to sing, “Emmanuel Macron, you dickhead, we’re coming to get you” to the tune of a soccer chant that became popular during this year’s World Cup. The video has now been shared over 33,000 times.
Bresson was one of the 317 people arrested before 9 a.m. on Saturday. By the end of the day, that number would reach almost 1,800. This weekend’s demonstrations were dubbed “Act 4,” the fourth Saturday in a row of protests across France since Nov. 17. Every new “act" of the Yellow Vests movement has brought with it vaguer politics, more extreme violence, and an increasingly intense reaction from the police. Protesters, wearing the high-visibility safety vests all French motorists are legally required to have in their car, raged across Paris all day, smashing storefronts, burning cars, and clashing with police.
The demographics of the Yellow Vests are hotly debated, but they are mostly professionals who live outside the big cities — truckers, teachers, small-business owners — who have finally reached their breaking point with the continuing economic inequality in France. To them, President Emmanuel Macron, nicknamed “the president of the rich,” is the embodiment of that inequality. But beyond the safety vests, the chants of “Macron démission” (“Macron resignation”), and a fierce contempt for the general state of things in France right now, there wasn’t much unifying the thousands gathered along the Champs-Élysées on Saturday. That is, except for Facebook.
There were no placards with clear slogans or political activists handing out pamphlets or any of the other hallmarks of your typical French protest. The only things really being waved above the crowd were phones recording live video.
The roots of the Yellow Vests movement have been intertwined with Facebook from the very beginning. The social network poured gasoline on a fire that had been burning in France since the first days of Macron’s presidency. His administration has loosened French labor laws and slashed taxes for the wealthy, and his approval rating is extremely low. This hatred of Macron had coincided with the rise of Groupes Colère, or Anger Groups, on Facebook. Local groups meant for complaining about small-town issues. They initially started showing up across French News Feeds in response to a possible bill reducing the speed limit on country roads. The same month, algorithm changes were made that strengthen the impact of friends, family, and local publishers, spreading Anger Groups at an incredible speed.
The Anger Groups finally mobilized in October after a Change.org petition about fuel taxes went viral within a small Parisian suburb. The petition led to a Facebook event, which has now led to four weeks of similar Facebook events spreading across France. Three people have died so far, hundreds more have been injured, and thousands have been arrested.
This weekend the Facebook feedback loop seems to have completed itself. Protesters brought together by small, decentralized Facebook groups poured into the streets of Paris, livestreaming the violence for their friends watching back home.
The fact that the French have a well-known protest culture shouldn’t be used to wave off the peculiarity of what’s happening right now. Typically, French protests have some kind of leadership, whether they be unions, student groups, or loosely organized far-left activist cells like “black blocs.” During the presidential elections in 2017, the protests were usually marches. At the top of the march you’d have more extreme protesters, usually young anarchists clashing directly with police, while behind them, more moderate political groups would march along, carrying banners and placards.
Comparatively, on Saturday, it was chaos. By 10 a.m., around a thousand Yellow Vests were already gathered on the Champs-Élysées, the wide avenue that is Paris’s most famous. At the top of the street, blocking the Arc de Triomphe monument, was a line of police vans. Then, cascading down every side street that branches off the main avenue were even more police vans, locking in the protesters. There were no leaders organizing the penned-in crowd. Focal points would appear at random. Yellow Vests would start shouting at a particular police line as a sea of phones rose up to capture the whole thing. When the police decided they had had enough of the spectacle, they would unleash dense rounds of tear gas onto the cordoned-off street, sometimes leaving Yellow Vests with nowhere to run.
These moments of violence were going incredibly viral on Facebook as they unfolded on the ground. Yellow Vests spent the weekend circulating any video they could find that appeared to show police brutality against protesters. The closest thing to coordination the Yellow Vests have is their decentralized Facebook Groups. Videos were uploaded from all over France, with members from one group sharing anything they were seeing in other groups. Groups have a functionality that allows users to go live within the group. Once members are live, they appear in a carousel at the top of the group’s page. This essentially turned Anger Groups into watch parties on Saturday.
The movement’s dependency on Facebook, and particularly Facebook video, for coordination has resulted in an almost unfathomable deluge of unsourced photos, videos, and screenshots circulating inside these groups. One popular video in a Yellow Vests Facebook group right now promises to uncover links between the Rothschild bankers and pedophile politicians.
It’s hard to really wrap your head around the scale of the viral swamp forming inside of these groups. As of Monday morning, some of the most popular posts inside of Yellow Vests Facebook groups reference a crowdfunding campaign that was started Sunday night by French far-right influencer Damien Rieu. Rieu started the campaign to raise money for the medical bills of a woman named Fiorina Lignier, who Rieu claims was hit in the eye by a flashbang grenade on the Champs-Élysées Saturday. The video that appears to show Lignier get hurt went viral, and now users have been taking her photo or screenshots of the video and passing them between groups like a chain letter.
Many of the users in these groups have an extremely casual relationship with facts. It led to intense moments of real-world violence between Yellow Vests and journalists on Saturday. At one point, a group of protesters tried to tear their way into a building where French broadcaster BFMTV was filming on the roof. The Yellow Vests had spent the morning shouting at them for filming and accusing them spreading fake news about the movement. Protesters finally ripped off the planks of wood protecting the building’s glass doors and smashed through into the lobby before police intervened, firing stun grenades and tear gas directly at protesters.
Every facet of the Yellow Vests movement is being determined in real time by Facebook video, with virality acting as a substitute for clear leadership. That vacuum has created a dogpile, with dozens of voices trying to get a handle on what the Yellow Vests do next.
There are currently around eight people who claim to be spokespeople for the Yellow Vests. Maxime Nicolle, known as “Fly Rider,” is one of the most popular. He’s a prolific conspiracy theorist and communicates to other Yellow Vests almost exclusively via Facebook Live videos.
Another popular voice among Yellow Vests is a truck driver named Eric Drouet, one of two men who started the first Yellow Vests Facebook event after they saw a viral petition about gas prices that was created by a woman who sells aromatherapy products. In the lead-up to Saturday, Drouet went on BFMTV and threatened to storm the Élysée Palace, France’s equivalent of the White House. “We’re going in there,” he said when asked what he would do if protesters managed to get there. He later backtracked the next day during a Facebook Live and called for calm. He also, in a last-ditch effort to stop the demonstration on Saturday from devolving into a full-on riot, tried to set up a Facebook event to corral everyone along a highway that circles Paris, saying, “There’s nothing to destroy there.” This is how several thousand Yellow Vests ended up penned in on the Champs-Élysées on Saturday, unable to escape salvo after salvo of tear gas.
There is also a growing constellation of Yellow Vest influencers, like the 51-year-old chemtrail truther from the Brittany region named Jacline Mouraud. Mouraud recently met with French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, claiming she represented a group called “Les Gilets Jaunes Libres" (“The Free Yellow Vests”), who describe themselves as pacifists. With Mouraud was Benjamin Cauchy, who has been accused of having links to French ultranationalist groups. A huge majority of Yellow Vests Facebook groups now consider them traitors to the movement.
But while every far-right influencer and digital grifter tries to get a hold over the movement, the most important developments so far have just been whatever rises to the top of the News Feed. The now-iconic safety vest that the protesters are all wearing comes from a viral Facebook video by a 36-year-old named Ghislain Coutard, who works at a car manufacturer. “We all have a yellow vest in the car. Display it on the dashboard, all week, until the 17th — a simple color code to show that you agree with us,” he says in the video, which has now been shared 200,000 times.
One of the most confusing examples of Yellow Vests just appropriating whatever they see on the internet is the kneeling pose that was seen in Paris on Saturday. Protesters would kneel in front of police officers with their hands clasped behind their heads in reference to a shocking video of the mass arrest of more than a hundred high schoolers in the Paris suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie on Thursday. The video went viral, and then students started reenacting the pose the next morning in protests against a proposed reform of higher education. The student arrests had nothing to do with the Yellow Vests, and many students are conflicted over whether they should merge their protests with the Yellow Vests. But it’s viral, so it’s found its way in there.
Letting Facebook shares lead your political movement makes for a weird experience on the ground. Imagine Occupy Wall Street combined with SantaCon, with every genre of internet conspiracy theorist out in full force.
One protester holding a sign that read “11 vaccinations = poison,” which references a recent policy that makes 11 childhood vaccinations compulsory, told BuzzFeed News that he had come to Paris to spread awareness around vaccinating children. “My friends whose children have taken them, it’s just awful, they’re all like...” he said, then rolled his eyes back in his head and stuck his tongue out. “All have autism. Awful.”
Another Yellow Vest BuzzFeed News spoke to had the words “Macron go away, your mother sucks off bears,” written on his vest. When asked if he was active on any Facebook Anger Groups, he took out his phone and started enthusiastically pulling up Yellow Vests memes on the page “La France en colère” (“France is angry”).
“These aren’t normal protesters; these are common people,” a teacher from Lyon named Pierre told BuzzFeed News on Saturday. Written across his vest were the words “common interests.”
There are Yellow Vests who want to leave the EU. There are Yellow Vests who want to stay in the EU and strengthen France’s relationship with it. There are Yellow Vests worried about climate change, Yellow Vests who want to ban all immigration into France, ones who want to allow in more refugees. Several protesters on Saturday spent about an hour spray-painting a giant Illuminati symbol on the street.
All of these symbols get recorded or livestreamed or photographed and end up back inside of the Yellow Vests Facebook universe. The visual nature of it means whatever larger political context you want to tie these protests to, you can. You could go into any Yellow Vests Facebook group and find a post that supports whatever you want: anti-vax, 9/11 truther, anti-Masonic, anti-Zionist, climate change skeptic, green-deal activist, chemtrails, pro-refugee, anti-EU, Illuminati — it’s all in there.
Like with all Facebook memes, we’re reaching critical mass and international political movements are attempting to figure out what side the Yellow Vests are on. The left sees it as a revolution against Macron’s neoliberalism. The far right sees it as a populist uprising against Macron and the EU.
US President Donald Trump retweeted a fake video of the protests and linked them to economic anger as a result of the 2015 global climate change agreement he pulled out of last year. The tweet claimed the Yellow Vests were chanting “We want Trump!”, which was completely untrue.
On Twitter, the #GiletJaunes hashtag is almost entirely populated by American Twitter accounts with connections to 4chan or Reddit’s /r/The_Donald subreddit. Far-right news outlets like the Daily Caller and Gateway Pundit, and influencers like Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson and Katie Hopkins, have been pushing out tweets in support the movement since last month. And on the other side, you have Americans trying their hardest to connect the movement to the Kremlin.
On Friday, a 4chan user leaked an internal memo from the Paris police describing the planned positions of some squads during the Saturday protests. Authorities confirmed it was authentic, but only a partial document. After leaking to 4chan, it was circulated heavily inside Yellow Vests Facebook groups, confirming at least a small connection between some Yellow Vests and the 4chan community.
One external force does seem to be objectively gaining traction inside of the Yellow Vests: RT. The Russian state broadcaster, formerly known as Russia Today, has been breathlessly covering the chaos in France since the beginning of the protests in November, and it does seem like its videos are finally breaking through into Anger Groups. RT France had three different livestreams going on YouTube on Saturday. By focusing almost entirely on police violence against protesters, RT and its social video counterpart Ruptly are dominating Yellow Vests Facebook groups right now.
As the international political establishment tries to grapple with what the movement stands for, more people in more countries are adopting it. Which makes sense: It’s an extremely vague, incredibly visual protest movement against inequality. The safety vest is like a MAGA hat, but with even less specific political value. It’s an Anonymous mask for normal people. The vests have popped up at protests in Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands, and even Iraq.
Things will probably become even more confusing the further it spreads. A Yellow Vest was spotted in London at a pro-Brexit protest organized by far-right figure Tommy Robinson on Sunday. The man wearing it was also carrying a noose that he told reporters was meant for UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
After four weeks of this in France, things have become almost impossible to follow. One Facebook group on Monday had three different Facebook events set up for protests planned for next Saturday. One was called “Act 5 - Yellow Vests of Christmas,” another “Act 5: Macron Resignation,” and a third, smaller one wants people to block an airport.
It’s still unclear if anything will actually materialize. But if the current Facebook traffic is anything to go on, something will probably happen next weekend, and when it does, it’ll probably go really viral. ●