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Violence against France’s institutions – how far is too far?

media Yellow Vests in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

An arson attempt at the residence of France's Speaker of the Assembly has put the spotlight on acts of vandalism aimed at France's public institutions. While no link has been confirmed with France's Yellow Vest movement, the attempt has raised questions over how far people are prepared to go to make their grievances heard.

Richard Ferrand, Chairman of the Assembly for France’s ruling party La République En Marche (LREM) was no doubt surprised to hear that his secondary residence in Brittany was the venue of attempted arson on Saturday.

Local police said they found a blanket, a piece of rubber tubing and a handmade torch imbibed with fuel, which confirmed “without doubt” the criminal intent of the perpetrators. Ferrand has pressed charges and an investigation is under way.

No evidence of ‘Yellow Vest’ motive

The attempted arson, which took place on the same day as the 13th Yellow Vest protests, was initially suspected be linked to the movement’s hardline demonstrators.

But according to Jean-Philippe Recappé, public prosecutor of Brest (Brittany), no evidence of this has been found.

“There was no graffiti, demands or other signs that link the arson with the gilets jaunes”, said Recappé. “A window shutter and pane exploded, that was it.”

He also underlined the absence of danger for Ferrand.

“This is not a main residence”, Recappé said. “No one was in the house”.

"Nothing can justify the threats, violence and vandalism"

How far will the vandals go?

Even if this incident did not cause any severe damage, it brings into light questions that are becoming more and more pertinent in France in the wake of the continuing Yellow Vest protests.

How far does one go to make one’s grievances heard?

According to parliamentary sources, some sixty deputies of President Macron’s ruling party LREM have been targeted with violence or insults since the Yellow Vest movement began in November.

“Attacking a Ministry, vandalising parliamentary offices, hateful and racist letters against deputies, and now arson at Richard Ferrand’s house – what next for elected officials?” asked LREM deputy Sandrine Mörch.

Indeed, hardline Yellow Vest protesters have sprayed graffiti, and burnt cars in front of elected officials’ homes since the beginning of the movement.

A few weeks ago, violent Yellow Vest protesters bulldozed into the offices of France’s government spokesman and smashed cars.

On Saturday, during the 13th week of Yellow Vest protests, some demonstrators urinated on France’s National Assembly and Senate buildings.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said on Saturday that these acts were “a threat to democracy”.

Scenes such as these have become a weekly Saturday event for Parisians since November last year (Photo - January 5, 2019). Reuters

France’s changing government systems – a sixth Republic?

France, of course is no stranger to massive public upheavals. This is where the people rose against established monarchy and beheaded the King and Queen.

France’s government system is also unique in the sense that it has gone through several ‘Republic systems’ since the 18th century. France has embraced monarchy and imperialism, parliamentary and presidential-style democracies, and even a regime under German occupation.

These changes in government systems are known as France’s five ‘Republics’.

There have been calls of changing the system again to form a sixth Republic, with nearly 30,000 people responding in favour to a recent Facebook poll by one of the Yellow Vests leaders, Eric Drouet.

Most Yellow Vests want to protest peacefully. Here, a cry against police violence through music and fake blood. Hundreds of protesters have been injured and maimed in violent clashes with police. RFI/Marc Fichet


Peaceful majority upstaged by hardline vandals

What started out as protests against a fuel tax (later scrapped) has become a historical landmark in French history.

The middle and popular classes, especially in rural France, gradually swelled the movement's tide.

Many claim that unemployment, rising costs and financial reforms by President Emmanuel Macron have impoverished their daily lives.

Every Saturday since November last year, France's disgruntled masses, including teachers, students, retirees and labour unions, have been faithfully thronging the country's streets.

Braving cold weather, often accompanied by children, the moderate Yellow Vests aim to make their case heard peacefully.

According to opinion polls, a majority of France's population support the reasons behind the protests.

However, the fringe hardliner Yellow Vests have been upstaging the movement's largely peaceful majority.

A house split in the middle

In December last year, a group of gilets jaunes in Angouleme (western France) staged the beheading of French President Emmanuel Macron. The incident caused a media furore, and the participants were arrested.

Clearly, the times of bloody revolution are long past.

Destroying public property, attacking journalists and elected officials, violating the intimacy of their homes and urinating on France’s institutions.

Not to mention accidental deaths on motorways, and squeamish, gory injuries like demonstrators' hands ripped off by picking up police flash-ball grenades...

Does this really speak well of any movement?

The situation has led to a sharp divide and internal squabbles within the Yellow Vests.

A faction of the Yellow Vests recently announced their intention of running for European parliamentary elections in May.

Acts of disrespect to national institutions on one hand, and a jump on to the electoral bandwagon on the other, where are the Yellow Vests headed?

Anybody's guess, really.

Italy's far right has been wooing the Yellow Vest party for European elections in May, causing angry reactions from France's President Macron (Here, the Yellow Vest party with Italy's deputy PM Luigi Di Maio, wearing a red tie) Twitter Luigi Di Maio
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