How Macron contradicted his own intelligence services over 'yellow vest' protests

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When President Emmanuel Macron spoke to a group of journalists at the end of January this year he claimed there were “40,000 to 50,000 extreme militants” stirring up the 'yellow vest' protests, and he warned that violence was being orchestrated by political hardliners. Yet at the very same time the president's own intelligence services were producing an analysis which came to precisely the opposite conclusion. According to those security agencies, the ultra-right and ultra-left are “virtually non-existent” in the protest marches. Matthieu Suc reports on the president who appears to be ignoring or contradicting his own secret services.

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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.”

Screen grab from the Facebook page of Sergei Munier, a follower of former soldier Victor Lenta, at a 'yellow vest' protest. © DR Screen grab from the Facebook page of Sergei Munier, a follower of former soldier Victor Lenta, at a 'yellow vest' protest. © DR
In the protests of January 26th 2019 the intelligence services spotted just one member of the nationalist Parti Nationalist Français, one of the four ultra-right groups able to boast some local support across France. And a single member of the ultra-right Barjols collective, whose members had taken part in earlier 'yellow vest' protests, was spotted marching in a provincial protest, and peacefully.

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.

Screen grab from the Facebook page of Victor Lenta (with the red beret on the left) during a yellow vest protest in Paris. © DR Screen grab from the Facebook page of Victor Lenta (with the red beret on the left) during a yellow vest protest in Paris. © DR
It is true, however, that some on the extreme right did have a strategy of entryism in relation to the yellow vest movement. Some set up a group within the 'La Légion Jaune' ('The Yellow Legion'), others formed a group around the former soldier Victor Lenta. As Huffington Post has revealed, since mid-January 2019 Lenta has emerged as the organizer of security at the Paris demonstrations. A former paratrooper who wears a red beret above his yellow hi-vis vest, he was in the 3rd RPIMA parachute regiment based at Carcassonne in south-west France and is a former member of the Bloc Identitaire nationalist movement. Lenta became known in 2014 for his involvement with pro-Russians in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

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.

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