This is the story of a president who says exactly the opposite of what his intelligence services are telling him. But this story is set not in North America but in the heart of old Europe, and not in the White House but in a room in the seat of French presidential power, the Élysée.
The story goes back to late morning on Thursday January 31st 2019. President Emmanuel Macron was hosting five journalists at the Élysée for an “informal discussion” over coffee. The French president was in relaxed mood, wearing a roll-neck sweater under a grey suit, as one can see from a photo published on the website of weekly magazine Le Point.
But though the president was relaxed and smiling, he was also biting once he started criticising the violence committed during the 'yellow vest' demonstrations. According to him, this violence was caused by “40,000 to 50,000 militants who want to destroy the [country's] institutions”. Paris-Match magazine, which was represented at the meeting, reported that: “In the face of the violence orchestrated by the extremes the [head of state] warned against the 'fachosphere' [editor's note, the community of extreme right activists online] and the 'gauchosphere' [editor's note, the community of far left activists online] who have overpopulated social media.”
Yet these comments were very surprising given that, in the same period, reports from the French intelligence services were being sent to the Élysée which, according to several sources, were saying exactly the opposite. In fact, the events of the eleventh weekend of 'yellow vest' protests that took place days before that informal chat at the Élysée rather supported the intelligence agencies' analysis of previous weeks. This was that the ultra-right had disengaged from the protests “in Paris and the provinces”. Indeed, the domestic intelligence agency, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure (DGSI), apparently concluded one of its reports with the succinct observation: “The ultra-right scene is today almost non-existent in the [protest] marches.”
The intelligence services give three reasons for this disengagement by right-wing extremists from the protests. First of all, it is because the ultra-right failed to take over the leadership of the social movement, secondly because some Islamophobic groups refused to join the yellow vests, on the grounds there were Muslims in their ranks, and finally because of a wave of arrests among ultra-right activists which calmed down the less committed ultra-nationalists, as Mediapart has reported.
Other former soldiers were seen taking part in the the yellow vest security arrangements, but in his Huffington Post article journalist Pierre Tremblay says their presence was not part of a wider movement. Nor did it meet with the unanimous approval of all yellow vest protesters.
Mediapart understands that following the media coverage of Victor Lenta's involvement in the security details of the protests, the intelligence services observed that the former soldier himself had his own security protection. Contacted by Mediapart Lenta noted: “I was indeed threatened on the internet. It wasn't yellow vests, it was Antifas. But I don't have a bodyguard!”
In any case, the security agencies consider that the extremists still trying to infiltrate the yellow vest are only “a minority”. Even when such attempts at entryism were at their height in the first weeks of the movement, the agencies only counted “a few hundred individuals” coming from the ultra-right. This was already far-removed from the “40,000 to 50,000 individuals” spoken of by President Macron in January.