The Yellow Vest Phenomenon and the Radical Right

Yves here. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the gilet jaunes may not be so happy to have right wing yellow vest copy-cats.

By Rob May, who is currently completing a PhD. on the radical right at Sheffield Hallam University. His work focuses on British fascism’s links and influences with overseas counterparts. He has written for academic journals, newsletters and organisations. He lectures in history, politics and sociology. Originally published at openDemocracy

Alexander Gauland publicly supported the protests, while Princess Doris von Sayn-Wittgenstein, patron of the AfD in the Land of Schleswig-Holstein, posted a photograph of herself wearing a yellow vest.

James Goddard speaks to supporters after being released from Holborn Police Station. Dominic Lipinski/Press Association. All rights reserved.

So-called ‘yellow vest’ movements are now active across the globe. Beginning in France on 17 November 2018, the ‘yellow vests’ (named after the fluorescent safety vests French motorists wear) protested against France’s rising fuel prices introduced by the Macron government before morphing into a much broader protest on issues such as the high cost of living and income inequality. Dissatisfied people across the world are now donning the yellow jackets and congregating to protest.

Inspired by the French model, the majority of these groups taking to the streets are aiming their discontent at their respective governments on what are traditionally left-wing issues. The largest ‘yellow vest’ protest outside France was held in Taipei on 19 December 2018 with over 10,000 residents calling for fairer tax laws. In Israel, the complaint appears to be targeted on governmental corruption and tax hikes. In Iraq, more employment opportunities and better services are the main reasons for discontent. In the UK, left-wing Labour activists have adopted the attire to demand an increase in public spending and a Labour government. While in Italy, ‘yellow vests’ have marched in Rome to protest against the new tough anti-migrant lawimplemented by Italy’s radical right Five Star government, making it easier to expel new arrivals.

However, the ‘yellow vests’ are not exclusively left-wing movements. The radical right has also capitalised on the unrest. Dressed in yellow, thousands of activists are demanding that their causes be heard. This blog post examines ‘yellow vest’ radical right activity in Canada, Germany and the UK.

Active across the country, the movement in Canada appears to have been appropriated by far-right extremists. Extreme racist, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant chanting and placard waving are now commonplace in these marches. In fact, far right hate peddling biker gangs are not only taking part in the rallies but also recruiting new members from them. Brett Mineer, a Canadian radio show host, was bombarded with threats and abuse, including calls for his wife to be raped and for him to be physically attacked, after he criticised the ‘racist elements and conspiracy theories peddle[rs]’ among the crowds.

On 21 January 2019, Canada’s ambassador to France, Isabelle Hudon, claimed that the Canadian ‘yellow vest’ movement bears little resemblance to the gilets jaunes of France, suggesting that the French protests are not obsessed with race or immigration. During a trip back to Canada she was surprised to see some yellow-vest protesters brandishing signs with ‘violent words on immigration’, stating that ‘It’s not at all the kind of messages that the real gilets jaunes in France would deliver.’

In Germany, far-right organisations have found a new uniform with the yellow vest. Three such movements – Pegida (a movement ‘against the Islamization of the West’), Zukunft Heimat (Future Homeland) and Merkel-muss-weg-Mittwoch (a highly-active anti-Merkel group) – organised a ‘gathering in yellow vests’ outside of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on 1 December 2018 to denounce the UN Covenant ‘for safe, orderly and regular migration’ approved by the Bundestag the day before. A thousand people gathered to call for an ‘end to these inconsistent policies that give all rights to foreigners while ethnic Europeans are treated as second-class citizens’.

Alternative for Germany (AfD), the third largest party in the federal parliament, is also attempting to capitalise on ‘yellow vest’ demonstrations. Alexander Gauland, its co-leader and leader in the Bundestag, has publicly supported the protests, while Princess Doris von Sayn-Wittgenstein, patron of the AfD in the Land of Schleswig-Holstein, posted a photograph on social media of herself wearing a yellow vest.

Lastly, at the helm of the UK’s radical right ‘yellow vest’ movement appears to be James Goddard. Goddard is an Islamophobic self-professed supporter of the well-known anti-Islam campaigner Tommy Robinson – some label Goddard a ‘wannabe Tommy Robinson’. In fact, Goddard’s racism led to the suspension of his Twitter account. His fundraising activities have also been blocked by crowdfunding sites. In January 2019, Goddard attracted considerable media attention when, dressed in a yellow vest, he harassed public figures,leading to his arrest. As a result, ‘Overnight, the Leicester-born James Goddard turned from just another angry bloke to a leading figure in the British far-right.’ Subsequently, Goddard appears to be organising regular ‘yellow vest’ protests across the country, demanding a ‘hard core’ no deal Brexit. Many attending these marches appear to be using Brexit as a smokescreen to highlight other grievances.

Supporters of the English Defence League (EDL), an Islamophobic organisation founded by Robinson, have also made themselves visible at rallies. Speakers have addressed crowds to call for Britons to fight for Christianity against foreign cultures and religions. Some demonstrators have decorated their yellow vests with aggressive and offensive slogans or messages. For example, ‘F**k the Police F**k the Government F**k the EU’, ‘Left-wing scum: Merkel, May Macron, Corbyn Go To Hell’ and – presumably in reference to Asian grooming gangs – ‘protecting our children does not make us far right. It makes us just right.’ At present, each rally is attracting numbers in the low hundreds. Unsurprisingly, clasheshave occurred between the radical right ‘yellow vests’ and both the police and the left-wing ‘yellow vests’.

The future of the ‘yellow vest’ movements is difficult to predict. If the ‘yellow vests’ in France continue to protest in vast numbers – 2 February marked the twelfth consecutive weekend of demonstrations when between 10,000 and 13,800 people protested in Paris, with thousands more in Tours, Valence, Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and other French cities– and therefore sustain the interest of the mass media, the ‘yellow vests’ are likely to continue in other countries, and the radical right will continue to adopt the uniform for its own purposes.

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  1. McGardner

    Remember Bin Laden? His entire goal was to Islamicize the West. That was his quid pro quo. The West converts = the ‘terror’ stops. Doing his bidding is seen by some as a negation of the sacrifices borne of the War on Terror ™. Islamophobia, as a term of art, is used here as a way to discredit those who can foresee the future of Western and Islamic relations, and their inherent incompatibility. The yellow vests are solely a global uniform for those who reject Globalism. There is no longer Left vs. Right. It’s all Nationalist vs. Globalist (and for the record, Republican neocons are to be considered Trotskyite globalists wrapped in the Stars and Stripes.) What is Nationalist? Nato(italian): born. Just because I have dual citizenship, US/Italy (by marriage), doesn’t make me Italian.

    1. Disturbed Voter

      Left does something = good. Right does something = bad. Why this prejudice? If some political technique works, it will be imitated by everyone. If the Right imitates something, does that de-legitimize it? I don’t think so. If you don’t change peacefully, you will change violently.

      1. Arizona Slim

        ISTR reading a book called The Looming Tower. It outlined Bin Laden’s goals and explained why he chose them.

      2. McGardner

        Outta Saudi Arabia was definitely a near term goal, you’re right. Here though is a link from the wayback machine 2007(!) about the west converting.
        Kilgore- that could well be a neocon seeded mind bender. Problem with that is still the issue of two different systems of law, which are sometimes contradictory. The value mismatch is a non starter. Here in Minnesota, they’re beginning ro resettle Somalis into rural areas so as to proselytize ‘diversity’. Sometimes you just know it won’t work out as planned. (…says quick serenity prayer).
        – Was Bin Laden an anti-globalist? In the anti-capitalist/imperialism sense, certainly. But that was also a front for his goal of global Islamic political/religious domination. That’s the whole premise.
        Seems like a lifetime ago.
        Thanks for the thoughtful commentary. Be well.

        1. Jeremy

          Why haven’t the mods nuked this from orbit? If I’m going to argue with the right I’d rather do it with decently sophisticated fascists, not some brain damaged recitation of the neocon subforum on Stormfront.

    2. Kilgore Trout

      Re: “the future of Western and Islamic relations, and their inherent incompatibility.” No, I disagree. I think that’s a gross simplification on several accounts. Bin Laden’s movement was/is anti-globalist also. His appeal to messianic jihad was at first limited, I think, to Afghanistan recruitment purposes only. Only after Soviets left, and he realized his movement had been used as a pawn in Cold War realpolitiks, did Bin Laden begin to broaden his appeal, adding US military occupation/”protection” of Mecca, and Israel/Palestine to his list of grievances against the West. That “inherent incompatibility” you speak of is contrived by the same Neo-Cons you rightly label as globalists, to justify our continued intervention and “forever wars”.

    3. Jeremy

      Very good and fair to elide the distinction between Osama bin Laden and a universal “Islam”, as if the millions of Muslims worldwide are all growing up with Sayyid Qutb bedtime stories. I could even describe this position using a “term of art”.

      1. Jeremy

        On the other hand, there’s a Muslim in the cubicle next to me; sure he’s a normal human and we get along great, but he won’t eat my pork dumplings so I guess you’re right – there is a Clash Of Civilizations.

        1. Larry Motuz

          Fer sher!

          An mite I ad: Dem Big Endiens just doan unnerstan da natral law bout eatin right eny mor dan da mooslim in da nexd cubical bout pork.

    4. AmericanExpat

      It looks like globalist vs. nationalist, but it’s really Jihad vs. McWorld.

      How has the world forgotten Benjamin Barber’s book by that name?

  2. zagonstra

    Why “so-called?” when some uses this term it always strikes me as somewhat curious…I can almost see their eye-brows point up and their lips form a smirk…I would love to see a yellow vest picture silk-screened on T-shirts and sold online…I would buy one…maybes someone already has created them.

    I know this doesn’t address contents of article…oh well.

  3. David(1)

    New Coke failed, so let’s introduce “Classic Coke”.

    The Red Scarves failed to dilute the Gilets Jaunes, so let’s taint the brand by putting a bunch of goons in the gear.

    1. Larry Motuz

      The goons know that wearing MAGA hats lowers their creds as regular people, whereas disguising themselves in Yellow Vests imparts a cred they’d like to have.

    2. Enquiring Mind

      Some thought that the whole New Coke episode was sleight of hand to get people off a sugar product and onto a cheaper sweetener product to fatten Coke margins. Angelenos, and others, have access to sugary Mexican Coke in many markets, should the need arise.

  4. juliania

    The gilet jaunes ought not to be deterred. This is simply a ramification of the old ploy of running to the front of any parade and attempting to commandeer the message. Good for the author in calling such efforts out – by their fruits ye shall know them! The French used a color and a covering that symbolized their national identity. Occupy was significant to the US, even in the echo of occupation found objectionable by native Americans. Citizens of other nations must be more imaginative and look to their own root identities, not try to copy others.

    Peaceful, non-racial resistence to national neoliberalism needs to find its local legitimacy, its own language. Imagine all the colors of the rainbow, and more!

    1. charles 2

      The French used a color and a covering that symbolized their national identity.

      Nothing to do with national identity.

      Yellow jackets have been made compulsory in vehicles in France in 2009, The french government even enrolled Karl Lagerfeld in its awareness campaign (translation “It is yellow, it is ugly, it goes with nothing, but it can save lives”).
      At the time, there were significant grumblings about people having to pay fines because they failed to have one in their car, despite the fact it was quite difficult to source because inventories were low as everybody scrambled to find its own. So it became one of the symbol of an over-intrusive and inefficient nanny state who was interfering with people’s lives in an annoying way. To put it in economist terms, it is another drop in the bucket of new compulsory expenses that come to reduce discretionary spending.
      So when the state significantly increased fuel taxes for motorists, it was quite natural to use it as a rallying symbol of the tax/regulatory persecution of citizen. It is the same as women showing conspicuously their bras at a feminist protest.

      1. The Rev Kev

        “It is yellow, it is ugly, it goes with nothing, but it can save lives”

        Not true of the Vogon Constructor Fleet!

  5. Grant

    Walter Benjamin wrote about the concept of “divine violence”, which is violence, protests, riots, that doesn’t have any clear ideological goals or plan in mind. It wasn’t violence with a political end in mind, it was just a mass expression of anger. I have struggled to figure out if the Yellow Vests would qualify as that. Occupy Wall Street would not qualify as that. It was a reflection of anger at the system, corruption, and other things, but it also had a rough ideological core. And there were lots of working groups within Occupy that came up with good analysis and ideas. I don’t see the same thing with the Yellow Jackets, but I could be missing something. I think the structure of the EU and the EMU contributes to that too. The EU is structured in such a way so as to make solving any structural problems really difficult, at least if the “solution” doesn’t involve mass privatizations, deregulations and austerity. There is no way to redistribute surpluses in places like Germany to other countries in deficit, there is no real aid given from one government to another. Here in the US, Mississippi receives far more in aid than it pays in taxes, whereas the reverse is true of states like California. So, there is a means of re-distributing surpluses from one state to another. There is no real mechanism like that in the EU, and the ECB is radically different than the way the Fed and the Treasury manage things and cannot do many of the things the Fed and Treasury do. It seems that in many instances, like Syriza in Greece, parties are elected to solve mass structural problems within the EU, and the EU makes that all but impossible. As a result, will a good portion of the anger within the system will be divine violence, to use Benjamin’s phrase? If the system doesn’t change to deal with its structural issues, eventually enough people will get power basically in order to burn the system down. Maybe I am being overly dramatic, and maybe I am missing something in regards to the Yellow Jackets.

    1. jrs

      you wouldn’t think an explicitly left wing movement (and Occupy was that, but there are more left wing movements in the U.S. now) could that easily be co-opted for the right. Because the ideologies just don’t combine, definitely not in the U.S.. They are pretty obviously opposite in their values.

      Granted a left wing movement might have other vulnerabilities, like being infiltrated by violent troublemakers of questionable motive, but whatever that is (CIA possibly), it does not pretend to be right, it might pretend to be left (anarchist etc.).

      1. Grant


        The problem is that lack of any ideological core to begin with. Divine violence can have value, because it lets the elites know that people aren’t happy and that things are heating up. But without an ideological core and a vision, the particular way to respond is left up to those elites. In the EU, the US, the UK, that means what exactly on policy? The elites the world over also do not have any solutions, they have no alternatives, and have all bought into the same rough set of policies and worldview. There are also some objective factors that spell doom for capitalism as we know it, the environmental crisis being the most obvious one. So, divine violence can be okay broadly, but in regards to policy, it doesn’t have any value by itself. In addition to movements, protests, riots, revolts of various kinds, there has to be concrete proposals, alternatives and systematic critiques. Occupy had that, the environmental movement has that (the radicals at least). I don’t see that though with the left in many countries right now, at least not much, and there seems to be a huge need for an internationalist outlook. The World Social Forum had lots of great ideas, the Another World is Possible books had a lot of great ideas about how to have an alternative international economic system. Michael Hudson has written about what was the New International Economic Order, and Keynes had interesting ideas on the international economy too with the ICU and his Bancor idea. Johanna Bockman has written about “socialist globalization”, which is pretty interesting as well. But any left movement has to confront the ideas and policies of the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, deals like NAFTA, along with the ideologies that form the foundation for those things. I haven’t followed the Yellow Jackets in France as much as others here, so maybe this is being worked out, but I don’t see anything showing that it is. Seems to be more of a mass expression of anger, which various groups across the ideological spectrum can run to and attach themselves to. If the Yellow Jackets were explicitly left wing, they could have told the fascists to hit the road.

    2. gordon

      But the EU does distribute lots of money to smaller, poorer members. The difference from the US example you quote (Mississippi) is that in the US the redistribution is largely (maybe entirely?) by way of individual entitlements, whereas in the EU it is money given to Governments. The possibility of graft in the latter case is obvious, and no doubt there are plenty of people in, say, Slovenia who wonder where all the EU money ended up. In Mississippi it ends up unambiguously in the hands of the people, so far as I am aware. But I need to add that I’m not an American, so I could have misunderstood what happens over there.

  6. Iguanabowtie

    Albertan here. Our right wing is less organic MCGA and more just a front for petrobusiness, as you would expect from an oil-based bannana republic. The local shills heard that the GJs in France mobilized over a fuel tax & unilaterally decided they were kindred spirits – there really isn’t any deeper connection than that.

    1. Jeremy

      How does Faith Goldie fit into this? As far as I can tell this is a combination of tar sands astroturf with white nationalist grifting… They’re playing with fire but I don’t think it’s lighting. Saw them in Winnipeg: a dozen of them tops, and passersby were not doing the supportive honking. It was sad.

  7. Craig H.

    ‘It’s not at all the kind of messages that the real gilets jaunes in France would deliver.’

    Maybe. Maybe not. Does anybody know of a list of proposals or demands or grievances from the GJ’s? An interview with any kind of official spokesman? Everything I have seen is vague. The leading Be_Powers mass publication, The Economist magazine, has been pretty skimpy. The most specific thing I have seen in there is they accuse GJ’s of being: against gay marriage, against Jews, against immigrants, ignorant of how easy they have it. The elite and the owners are against the GJ’s and they don’t even know what they stand for. Or maybe they do and they just aren’t revealing it.

    They have many weapons. Accusing the GJ’s of being fellow travelers with fascists is one of their scripts.

    The little guys who think they might be fascists are not my enemies. The little guys who academics call fascists are not my enemies. Bezos and Soros and Zuckerberg and their cloaked backers who consider me a useless eater are my enemies.

    1. jrs

      now if that’s not white privilege what is? I mean if something is smeared as f-ist and isn’t that just a smear and not worth anything but refuting and ignoring it (if Bernie Sanders is called an f-ist tomorrow we all know it’s completely ridiculous BS). But if something is actually tending in that direction even if it’s little guys, yea privilege it is, not to worry. The KKK was little guys.

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        …and they would have remained “little guys”…isolated and alone…if not for the generals, colonels, “grand dragons”, and the structures and hierarchies.
        I’m with Craig on this one….sign I saw in a picture of a 1960’s era protest:”the enemy doesn’t come by boat, he comes by limousine.”
        I grew up in klan country…embedded in the local power structures, but hidden from public view.
        the most vocal racists(and in my case, anti-hippie, anti-weirdo) were always the most secretly fearful…and would have never said a word if they didn’t feel that their fellows had their backs.
        without that support, it’s all a bunch of “display behaviour”…waving branches.
        watch those same jackasses when they take a wrong turn and end up the pale minority on the “other side of the tracks”: scared little boys, wetting themselves.

  8. remmer

    I haven’t been keeping up with the gilet jaunes, so I found this article very enlightening. Thanks for posting it. I used to get France24, but my cable company doesn’t carry it anymore.

  9. David

    Nothing much to see here I think.
    The gilets jaunes are not a « Left-wing » movement in any important sense, except insofar as some of their demands sound like traditional demands made by leftist political parties in the days when such ideas meant something. They are a popular movement which, unlike nearly all the examples given in the article, is not linked to and is indeed hostile to, political parties of any kind. That groups around the world are adopting such a simple piece of visual mimicry is hardly surprising.
    But the article does reflect a confusion between what Left and Right values once were, and what they have become in this young man’s lifetime. Opposition to immigration for example was a leftist cause in many countries because of the (justified) concern that immigrants would be exploited to drive down wages and working conditions. Likewise, opposition to political Islam cannot glibly be dismissed as « Islamophobia », but in Francé for example, is deeply rooted in secular and republican values which were historically typical of the Left. And a little research would show that radical Right-wing groups between the Wars were at least as anti-capitalist as any leftist party.

  10. Savita

    Craig H

    there are no official spokespeople, this is against their very nature. But there are unofficial leaders, who the media does hone in on – basically those who have been the most pro active in organising, and the most vocal and visible, and been around longer. One of the best known ‘leaders’ is a lorry driver :-) (truck in US)

    Apparently some gilets jaunes will be aiming to stand in elections for EU Parliament – see aboout half way down

  11. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    The child abuse scandal centred on Rotherham & other Northern English cities was a gift to the Far right, on top of the general economic malaise that has been visited on the once relatively prosperous industrial English versions of the US Rust Belt. Everybody in authority looked the other way, largely it seems to avoid being slapped with the racist label, meaning that a sore that could have been cauterised early on, was allowed to grow & fester.

    Ever deepening resentment has to find a voice or an ear that will at least give the impression that they are listening or actually care – unfortunately the Left whether of the hard or Neoliberal champagne variety for the main part, are more concerned with political correctness than those who once upon a time were their actual reason for being.

  12. Rhondda

    I think the gilets jaunes have become a symbol for “those people who are invisible and purposefully ignored” by the arrogant,1%-er technocrats in government. The invisible made high visibility: “I am a citizen. Look at me! Listen to me!” This pearl-clutcher of a piece by Rob May — now at CARR, the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, strikes me as soft propaganda of the II/IfS flavor. Reading it alongside other writings from the CARR website — and a walk through Mr. May’s twitter — is instructive. Among other subtle objectionables, there seems to be a strong institutional strain of ‘anyone who isn’t all-in for massive immigration’ is a racist. Mr. May, I would say to you and your CARR ilk: when people of any stripe are declared ‘deplorables’ and not to be seen or heard — that’s when the radical rears its head.

    1. Rhondda

      Addendum: “a symbol for “those people who are invisible and purposefully ignored” by the arrogant,1%-er technocrats in government” — by this I meant an international symbol. Right or Left, doesn’t matter as much.

  13. Synoia

    Ian Welsh wrote, that if the Left did not address inequality, the Right would.

    The left mostly failed.

  14. Tomonthebeach

    According to Paxton, fascists form coalitions to seize power by co-opting liberal movements. Fascists drain off the anger and use that to make their kool-aid.

    After (and if) they seize power, they slowly kick out the libtards who gave them numbers and commence purifying the herd. You would think that Germany of all places would recognize the here-we-go-again of the AfD and lock em all up like in the early post-WWII days.

  15. pink prince

    The USA needs Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) to protest Trump’s domestic & foreign policies. He is a clone of George Warmonger Bush & Ehud Barack Obama.

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