France To Investigate Reports Of Russian Instigation In “Yellow Vest” Protests

French authorities are investigating reports that Russian interference may be helping to exploit and expand the five-week-old "yellow vest" protests.

As James Joyner noted yesterday, France has been rocked for five weeks now by the so-called “yellow vest” protests, named such due to the fact that protesters have taken to wearing the yellow emergency vest that everyone in France is required to keep in their car in case of a roadside emergency. Ostensibly, these protests originated in public dissatisfaction over increases in fuel taxes imposed by the government of President Emmanuel Macron in part to enforce the nation’s commitments pursuant to the Paris Climate Accords. After several weeks of protests, Macron agreed to at least delay those taxes and reconsider other methods of compliance with the agreement. That didn’t stop the protests, though, and they seemed to turn even more violent yesterday although it’s now unclear exactly what it is the protesters want, or if they even know what they want. France’s Finance Minister, meanwhile, is warning that the continued protests are threatening to have an impact on the French economy, thus increasing the pressure on Macron to act in response to the protests, perhaps with a crackdown that could end up backfiring. Additionally, as James noted in a subsequent post, there have been credible allegations that Russia has been helping to stoke the fires of those protests, an allegation that French officials now say they intend to investigate:

France opened a probe into possible Russian interference behind the country’s Yellow Vest protests, after reports that social-media accounts linked to Moscow have increasingly targeted the movement.

According to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, about 600 Twitter accounts known to promote Kremlin views have begun focusing on France, boosting their use of the hashtag #giletsjaunes, the French name for the Yellow Vest movement. French security services are looking at the situation, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday in a radio interview with RTL.

Russia has been criticized for using social media to influence elections in the U.S. and elsewhere. Attempts to use fake news reports and cyberattacks to undercut the 2017 campaign of French President Emmanuel Macron failed, but Russian-linked sites have pushed questionable reports of a mutiny among police, and of officers’ support for the protests.

“An investigation is now underway,” Le Drian said. “I will not make comments before the investigation has brought conclusions.

The Twitter accounts monitored by the alliance usually feature U.S. or British news. But the French protests “have been at or near the top” of their activity for at least a week, according to Bret Schafer, the alliance’s Washington-based social media analyst. “That’s a pretty strong indication that there is interest in amplifying the conflict” for audiences outside France.

Much of the tweeted material comes from Russian state media outlets including the Sputnik news website, the RT television network, and Ruptly, a German-based video news agency that belongs to RT. These outlets are covering the French crisis closely; RT has said that 12 of its journalists have been injured in the protests, far more than any other news organization.

Sputnik and RT have reported in recent days that most French police no longer support Macron and are siding with the protesters. Their sources: representatives of two small police unions that together won less than 4 percent of votes in nationwide union elections this month. Sputnik and RT also have shown a video – widely shared on French social media — of police in the southwestern town of Pau removing their helmets in what was described as a sign of solidarity with protesters. Local police and journalists on the scene said the description was untrue. They said some officers had briefly removed their helmets to talk with protesters before putting them back on.

In response to questions from Bloomberg News, Sputnik later corrected its article about police in Pau showing solidarity with protesters, to say the report “hasn’t been backed by evidence so far.” RT said its article about police siding with protesters, based on comments by the head of a minor police union, was justified because he had been quoted by other news outlets.

This isn’t the first time that the French government has alleged that Russia was interfering, or attempting to interfere, in its political process. During the 2017 campaign for President, Macron alleged that media outlets controlled by the Kremlin were spreading false news about him and his campaign due to the fact that he was considered to be tougher on Russia than either of his rivals, Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, and Francois Fillon of the Republicans. However, most of those stories, some of which alleged that Macron lived a “double life” and had the support of a “wealthy gay lobby” failed to gain any traction either in mainstream French media or online. Another claim, that Macron’s campaign was being bankrolled by Saudi Arabia showed up in a newspaper in Belgium. While the source of this story was never determined, law enforcement determined that it was linked to a Russian “troll factory” similar to those used to interfere in the 2016 Presidential race in the United States. Finally, the Macron campaign itself was hit with an email-based phishing campaign similar to those used by Russia against the Democratic National Committee in the United States that were a part of the efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.

Taking this history into account, it’s not at all hard to believe that Russia has been involved in trying to stoke the fires that have caused these “yellow vest” protests to turn violent and to continue notwithstanding the fact that the initial demand, the repeal of the fuel tax that was recently passed by French lawmakers, has been met. Such interference would be consistent not only with past Russian behavior but with the hypothesis that the real goal of operations such as the Russian interference in the campaign hasn’t been so much to back one side or another in political debates but to sow chaos and distrust within western democratic societies. This theory is consistent with the allegations that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has made in his indictment of Russian officials in February and in July of more than 25 Russian officials and organization for both on the ground organizing and Internet trolling that Mueller alleges was designed to exploit already existing hyperpartisan divisions in American society. In addition to this, the past year has also revealed the existence of a Russian agent who had infiltrated the National Rifle Association and other gun rights organizations, and another Russian woman who was involved in attempting to interfere in the just-concluded midterm elections. Outside of the elections, there has also been evidence of Russian bots and “troll farms” using social media to stoke tension over issues such as gun control and the NFL’s National Anthem protests, the gun control debate, and the nation’s ongoing racial divisions. There have also been reports that Russia was involved in stoking tensions in advance of the 2016 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.

Given this history, the idea that the Russians may be involved in trying to stoke tensions in France now isn’t all that hard to believe. It would be entirely consistent with the course of action they’ve taken since at least 2015, which is when the Mueller investigation has determined that the troll farms and other apparatus used to spread false news and memes on American social media began. In the United States, that campaign took the form of both exploiting both sides of controversial issues and in providing aid, knowingly or unknowingly, to the President’s campaign for the Republican nomination and the General Election. None of this is to say that there isn’t something legitimate behind the protests in France, but the idea that the Russians may be exploiting pre-existing divisions in France just as they did in the United States and elsewhere is certainly one worth investigating.

FILED UNDER: Europe, Russia, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ben Wolf says:

    The inside the beltway’s version of Qanon: mass denial.

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  2. @Ben Wolf:

    Nobody is claiming that the reason for the protests isn’t something endemic to France, but given recent history you would have to be incredibly naive to believe that the Russians aren’t going to try to exploit those divisions.

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  3. JohnMcC says:

    @Ben Wolf: Gosh, I wonder what it is called when some fool refuses to believe that rationale exists to suspect that the Russian troll factory that floated internet rumors in this country and in France, could be doing it again.

    Surely not ‘denial’.

    Stupidity? Trolling?

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  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JohnMcC: I think Ben’s just found his inner Stalin apologist. These days, he’s sounding a lot like what I remember reading The Nation in high school.

  5. Joe America says:

    The allegation of Russian’s is a misdirection lie, they convinced all of France, 65 million people? Maybe if you watch CNN. Try saying that in Paris, they would laugh at you a beat your arse, maybe both. This is disgraceful to France and the Yellow Vest which is virtually all of France. Utterly Shameful! Shame on the guilty western media who is not reporting what is going on or why. French Yellow vest are very enraged at the ongoing media lies, they tried yesterday to light the building on fire where the lying mainstream press were hiding in Paris, but they were unsuccessful. There is a special place in hell for lairs.

    Emmanuel Jean-Michel Frédéric Macron “If they don’t like the fuel tax let them buy an electric car”
    Marie-Antoinette “Let them eat cake”

    Graffiti on the Arc De Triomphe, Macron Démission (resign), says it all.

    Essential Yellow Vest demands:
    ARROGANT MACRON, elected by fraud, who hates France and hates working class Frenchmen, Macron must GO. 82% want this.
    GLOBALISM can kiss their French arses. Global Warming Taxes (Fuel Tax) must end, stop the fleecing of French to enrich the corrupt parasitic Oligarchs, especially those in Brussels, it’s time for Frexit!
    MUSLIM INVASION must stop, live in France become French, stop bleeding the French people dry to support Muslim criminal behavior as the native French suffer in poverty to support this.

    There is a long list of other demands, many are I want my cake and eat it too contradictions. This is because this movement is virtually all of France, left, right center, up, down – every point of view.

    The Yellow Vest have been taking teargas in the face for a month now. The clashes have been very brutal and bloody. They will not take scraps from Macron. They feel they have nothing left. If 5% of what was happening on a single day in France was on the US Mexican border the press would be talking about it nonstop.
    Search on BitChute these terms to start with: Yellow Vest, WeAreChange, gilet jaunes, les gilet jaunes,
    Do the same on Invidious.us
    YouTube is not making it easy to find info, you have to type the exact name of the video and sometimes not even that works. Plenty of fake news about the Yellow Vest but sometimes something slips through. Quote from Wired “Facebook’s latest algorithm change favors wildly popular organic posts, rather than those from media organizations. The gilet jaunes protests in France have benefited from the new code”.

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  6. Grodon says:

    So, all it takes is 600 “fake” accounts to produce a groundswell that has support of 86% of the French people? It has even progressed to the point that provocateurs are well paid.

    And think of all the millions spent on the German Marshal Fund, Snopes, and Bill Kristol.

    Bah!

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  7. Mister Bluster says:

    One Ugly American and Putin sittin’ in a tree
    kay eye ess ess eye n gee!
    First comes luv, then comes marriage
    Then comes a trollbot in a baby carriage!

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  8. Unsympathetic says:

    France’s top 1% stand to gain by far the most from France’s 2018-2019 budget, dozens of normal Frenchmen are interviewed on TV stating that the gas tax was the final straw but now Macron’s got to go due to his taxes following on the terrible austerity after the bank bailouts on the backs of normal people who can’t take it any more….. and the obvious conclusion from all of those interviews is that it must be Russia? Nope, this isn’t “Russia exploiting” anything.. terribly out-of-touch economic policy is the sole responsibility of the country vomiting forth nonsense.

    This protest remains home-grown. Sure, go ahead and “investigate” all you want… and when whoever’s Benghaziing around don’t find anything I’m sure they won’t admit it because they can’t accept that people who don’t have money don’t need a “Foreign Power” to throw up middle fingers to people increasing their taxes. We all heard about “Fighting The Man” in high school.. that’s not unique to the US.

    In reality, Russia isn’t good enough to organize the massive protests we’ve seen all over northern France the last few days – and now spreading into Brussels and other nearby countries. I’d believe Russia organized something only if it was the size of the white power rallies when I was growing up — they’d need help from the counterprotestors to complete a softball team.

    This blather about Russia remains a distraction from the central truth that also grips US politics: No constituent likes austerity but the political class doesn’t discuss it because they are out of touch with the effects of their policies.

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  9. Gustopher says:

    @Doug Mataconis: If I was in a Russian Troll Factory, I would have been posting crap about the yellow jacket riots and Marcon, and now be claiming success regardless of how effective I had been. Bonuses, raises, promotions, office politics…

    I don’t think we have a good handle on how to measure the effectiveness of these social media campaigns. If we have good metrics, they aren’t being shared.

    In Trump’s case it is clear — he won a whole lot of states by a razor thin margin, and he needed those states. Everything was the deciding factor, from Russian interference, to Comey, to Clinton taking the Midwest for granted, to Trump’s infidelities with a porn star being quashed.

  10. Gustopher says:

    @One American: When someone proclaims to be something, either in their name or slogan, I assume that they are probably lying. Budget Moving costs a lot more than Reliable Moving, but they actually show up, etc.

    “Country First” is the slogan of people who put party ahead of country, “Proud Boys” are not actually proud, “Make America Great Again” will do nothing to improve America, and anyone who claims to be a Patriot isn’t.

    From this I assume that you are neither one person, nor American.

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  11. Ben Wolf says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Nobody is claiming that the reason for the protests isn’t something endemic to France, but given recent history you would have to be incredibly naive to believe that the Russians aren’t going to try to exploit those divisions.

    That’s a circular argument and you know it. “I suspect Russians because I suspect Russians.” Can you throw yourself down at the feet of the state any harder than you already have?

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  12. Barry says:

    @Joe America: Over the top rhetoric + really bad English + bad writing:

    Tea Party or Russian bot?

  13. Mister Bluster says:

    @Individual One, Ugly American:..problem?..

    No worries here Zippy. Bears beat the Rams last night.

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  14. DrDaveT says:

    @Joe America: If you’re going to call yourself “Joe America”, could you at least learn a little spelling and punctuation? It’s embarrassing.

    (Oh, and you might also do a little research about whether an American would use the word ‘arse’ next time…)

  15. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Grodon: No, it’s more like this. LeBron James is driving in for a layup. To spoil it, you don’t have to body-check him. You need only to jostle him enough to throw his aim off. Russia is expert at applying leverage. Maybe small in numbers, but correctly placed, large in effect.

  16. JohnMcC says:

    Gosh! Attracted quite a bit of incoming, didn’t we. If only we could call in an air strike on those coordinates….

  17. gVOR08 says:

    @Ben Wolf: @Joe America: @Grodon: @One American: @Unsympathetic:
    I have a thesis that one of the prerequisites for being a modern American conservative is poor reading comprehension. Awful lot of effort to rebut a claim no one actually made. Appreciate the little example.

    Also people immitating American conservatives. Couple of handles here I don’t recall seeing before. Somebody must have “yellow vest” in their search algorithm. FYI “handle” is an American English slang term for name or nickname.

  18. gVOR08 says:

    I’ve been reading Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money”. She quotes a couple of conservative operators marvelling at how quickly and easily they could gin up a “popular” movement against Obamacare. They already had the Tea Party and other infrastructure in place from astroturfing protests against the stimulus bill.

  19. Joe America says:

    @One American: This Russian premise is a hell of an insult to the French yellow vest, it’s a lie straight from the pit of hell. The media misleads, omits, really the net effect is they lie. Still with some effort you can find a lot of stuff posted by individuals on the ground in Paris and many other cities. The BBC has a gag order know as a D-notice in case you are wondering why they are silent.

    While it is true the Russians meddle, they are not very effective. The FSB could not even properly manipulated things in Ukraine who they share a border with and common language. The Russians could not even get collusion going in Ukraine. And you have Clinton’s Windows XP DYI easy to hack mail server. Do you think the Russians might try to hack the American Secretary of State no security mail server?? No way, I see collusion. Not to worry, one of the first things Trump did, no charges to be brought up on Clinton.

    Back to the doomed Macron. The Fifth Republic is over. He is gone without question, how long he will last or if he will survive, it depends on how much damage he does to France and how many French he kills. Frexit is clearly on the table and highly likely.

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  20. Joe America says:

    @Barry: A personal message from the Noble Yellow Vest of the Sixth Republic “Nom de dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperie de connard d’enculé de ta mère”

  21. gVOR08 says:

    @Joe America: Amazing. Ever hear of a movie called, “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming”? You actually sound like Alan Arkin playing a Russian, “Everybody to get from street!” And I think you meant “DIY”.

  22. Unsympathetic says:

    Macron for months now has been called “The President Of The Rich” due to his policies. Look it up – that’s in the NYT as well as European sources. Unless all the rich people in France have suddenly become Russian, these protests have zip to do with Russia. The gas tax was the trigger, not the entirety of the issue.. it’s the last straw in a long series of measures favoring the rich over the vast majority of the population.
    And yes, the support for the Yellow Vest protests remains very high even today [despite violence etc] because people are quite able to distinguish between legitimately grieved citizens and vandals who love to wreak destruction for its own sake.

    I read this site daily – good try at calling me new, though. Here’s a novel thought: Try not smearing everyone making salient points and maybe you’ll get more of them.. rather than people thinking the comments section is simply not worth their time.

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Unsympathetic: I take it that you’re adverse to the idea that Russia can be involved with some event without being the principal driving force. Okay.

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Joe America: Well, at least your French is as bad as your English, so you have THAT going for you. Carry on.

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  25. Joe America says:

    @One American: Russia has zero effect on the Yellow Vest protest, absolutely zero.

    The problem is the western media, they blame Russia for everything and the Russian mafia state approves of this free undeserved publicity.

  26. Tyrell says:

    @Ben Wolf: What are the major issues that they are protesting? I know they were in knots about the high gas tax and Marcon took that one off. That is something that we need to think about. We have been told that a “carbon tax” will not increase taxes or prices on the American middle class working folks.
    Look at this: “MIT creates Sun in a box” – an amazing new breakthrough in alternative energy! Imagine unlimited energy that is safe and cheap!

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  27. Matt says:

    Back in the early 2000s I remember reading a tech article on the beginning of the Russian social media operation. This was before twitter, instagram and all that. At the time I didn’t think it would be that serious of a problem. At the time I was more concerned about the Russian government’s organizing of various hacker groups within their borders while turning a blind eye to illegal activity committed by those Russian hackers. Basically as long as they refrained from attacking Russian assets they were given free reign. I vastly underestimated how powerful social media would turn out. The Russians didn’t and they were definitely a head of the curve. Facebook has outright admitted that a Russian created a fake facebook page to impersonate a Honduran activist to send messages in order to boost the size of the caravan. The account was closed and facebook refuses to provide further information.

    Sometimes it takes just the right push in the right spot to start an avalanche.

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Yeah I have no idea how he managed to construct such a terrible attempt at a sentence in french. Not even google translate does that bad.

  28. Joe America says:

    A message to the supporters of the arrogant globalist Macron from the suffering Yellow Vest fighting on the streets for their life.
    “Mon tabarnak j’vais te décalisser la yeule, calice! T’es rien qu’un ostie de gros cochon sale qui s’roule dans sa propre marde à la journée longue pis qu’y aime ça en plus!”

  29. Joe America says:

    A little more on Russian meddling. Remember the novochuck and polonium 210 assassinations. It’s to remind the Russian oligarchs who to be afraid of and a message that Putin’s Russia is still there and can hurt you. In the US elections they did Twitter manipulations favoring Clinton and Trump. They had no way to know the American press would obsess so long about it and only selectively focus on Trump. But this unexpected success in sewing confusion has really encouraged Russian meddling in spite of it have no real direct effect.