Journalists harassed and assaulted at Yellow Vest protests across France

Yellow Vest protesters interfere with journalists broadcasting from Paris protest. Photo: Makana Eyre.

As one hundred thousand people mobilized across France last Saturday, Jean-Luc Thomas, a veteran reporter for French TV news channel CNEWS, broadcast live from the heart of the Southern city of Toulouse. The rally was part of a new national movement whose members call themselves the Gilets Jaunes—or Yellow Vests—and who object to rising taxes and some of President Emmanuel Macron’s policies. That day, as he worked, Thomas experienced something that never happened to him before over his two-decade long career in journalism.

Around 3:30pm, protesters steps away from the Capitol Square, the sprawling City Hall of the so-called pink city, encircled Thomas and several other journalists. At first, they demanded that the reporters “get the fuck out of here.” Then the taunts grew more serious.

Dozens of Yellow Vests started yelling, “We want your skin,” and “You’re less than shit,” then calling the journalists “collaborators,” a reference to the support the Vichy government gave to the Nazis during World War II. The protesters began to spit and kick, and inched closer. Some tried to trip Thomas and his colleagues, and others threw bottles at them. Security guards, tasked with protecting the journalists, ultimately evacuated them. Thomas ran down a side street. Many of the protesters chased after him.

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Despite 24 years as a journalist, Thomas says, “I never felt what I felt that day—the feeling of deep fear.” In 2012, the sturdy, spirited shoe-leather reporter had been taken hostage by supporters of France’s far right party, the National Front. Even that incident, he says, did not scare him the way last week did.

This disturbing episode mirrors dozens of incidents of violence and harassment against journalists covering the Yellow Vests across metropolitan France, and on the overseas island territory, Réunion. From interfering with live broadcasts, spitting on reporters, and calling them offensive names to at least one case of serious violence, these incidents have brought to light what Reporters Without Borders called, in a statement, “a worrisome increase in mistrust of the media.” The Yellow Vests have announced that they are planning another round of national protests for this coming Saturday.

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Today, Thomas is in shock. He’s currently taking a break from work, away from Toulouse. The memory of the event haunts him. “I felt totally dehumanized and humiliated,” he says, and even feared for his life. Jean-Wilfrid Forquès, a reporter for BFMTV, France’s most-watched news channel, who was with Thomas in Toulouse that day, told Le Monde that the bodyguards who evacuated him “saved my life.” When reached by CJR for comment, Forquès declined to speak, saying that he fears for his safety and is currently under police protection.

The Yellow Vests, named after the neon yellow safety vests that all French drivers must keep in their cars, began to protest in mid-November when French President Emmanuel Macron announced a tax increase on diesel, the price of which had already increased by 23 percent since October 2017. To many French people, especially those living in rural areas where a car is essential, it was a move that brought immense anger. Since the demonstrations began, France has been faced with thousands of targeted blockades on streets, highways, and ports, causing massive traffic jams, hundreds of injuries and two deaths, and disrupting daily life around the country.

According to Isabelle Veyrat-Masson, a research director and media historian at the French National Center for Scientific Research, the Yellow Vests’ tense relationship with the media can be explained, in part, by the fact that this movement found its roots on social media. “The debate around the referendum of the European Constitution in 2005 already showed a real split between a pro-Europe media world on one side and a stigmatized population that used the internet to debate and organize their protests,” she says.

The primary target of this mistrust, according to Veyrat-Masson, is the TV channel BFM. The station’s name has become synonymous with inaccurate and government-affiliated reporting for many of the Yellow Vests, who often use the hashtag #BFMacron on social media.

On November 17, during the first round of protests, a video from a regional news show of the public network France 3 went viral. It showed an anchor cutting a reporter’s broadcast just as she was about to mention instances of police violence towards the Yellow Vests in the Aquitaine region. The channel explained in several tweets that they had to cut the reporter because their programming was late and the national edition was about to start, but many protesters condemned the episode as proof of media censorship.

Many other journalists have been harassed in the course of the protests. In Pau, Gilets Jaunes protesters heckled journalist Franck Paillanave and interfered while he was broadcasting live for C L’Info. “They were insulting us, starting with calling us collaborators, journalopes [a portmanteau of the French words for “journalist” and “bitch”], and BFMacron (a reference to BFM),” he tells CJR. “And then they got personal, telling me, ‘Fuck your whore mom.’” Paillanave, whose mother died 3 years ago, immediately cut his live stream. That night, he says, “I even thought about changing jobs in bed before going to sleep. I am passionate about this work though, and I don’t really want to stop. But that was tough.”

In the tiny island territory of Réunion, two men with scarves covering their faces tried to snatch Cynthia Véron’s microphone while she broadcast live. After her producer cut the live footage, one of the men said, “Journalists do not tell the truth. They only spread misinformation. We will create our own alternative media. We do not need you.” Brieuc Ghorchi, also on the island of Réunion, says demonstrators threw stones at him, even after he lowered the camera he’d been using to film them.

“Our journalists have been insulted and harassed. One reporter was spat on,” Valérie Nataf, the Managing Editor of French news channel LCI, says. “It was also very complicated for another reporter at Place de la Concorde in Paris”—where someone called out an anti-Semitic slur—“but there was no physical violence apart from the spitting.”

Perhaps the most disturbing episode happened in the city of Besançon, near the Swiss border. A freelance photographer, whose safety is still threatened, was badly beaten by a protester while covering the demonstration. While taking photographs of Yellow Vests, a man approached the photographer, used a racial slur, and told him to go home. Then he punched the photographer, fracturing his cheek bone in three places. “[The aggressor] laughed as he walked away,” Emma Audrey, a reporter for Media 25 who was working with the photographer who was attacked, says. “He was quite proud of what he did. That was it! It was so quick. I didn’t even have time to understand.” (The photographer who was hit in Besançon had an operation on his jaw on Wednesday and is now recovering.)

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A day after the November 17 protest, a group of journalists in Montpellier founded the Facebook group Payetoiunjournaliste (“beat up a journalist”) to respond to these incidents. Céline Durchon, a freelance journalist and a co-founder of the group, said “We created this platform to track the number of incidents and aggressions done toward journalists but also to welcome critiques from people and re-establish a dialogue between reporters and citizens.”

The group quickly grew in size, and was the target of trolling. Today it has around 3,500 members—of which, Durchon estimates, a little more than half are journalists.

Rémy Buisine, who works for Brut, an online video outlet that publishes solely on social media, has not been demonized by the Yellow Vests. He and his outlet chose to cover the Paris protest on November 24 with an 11-hour livestream of what was happening before him, conversing with protesters and adding contextual information. Buisine said the smartphone he uses to broadcast,“is far less intimidating than a TV camera. It’s the tool the average person uses”— for him, another reason that he hasn’t been singled out in the media-bashing.   

Politics and politicians are the main contributors to the environment in which this violence is happening. “For many years, the far left and far right movements have criticized journalism in France to rally supporters. But what is new is that now establishment parties are taking up this tactic,” says Nicolas Hubé, an associate professor of Political Science and political communication specialist at University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Strikingly, the four presidential candidates who, together, won 85 percent of the French electoral vote, have all, at some point, denounced the media.

As a response to the Yellow Vests, Sophia Chikirou, who directed communications for left-wing presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, said on Facebook, “I can’t feel any sincere compassion for these journalists. Their level of mental corruption, their lies, and the disinformation they impose on us are all things that justify anger.” She then added, “Avoid giving journalists a pretext to victimize themselves—don’t harm them, don’t talk to them, don’t read or watch their work.”

President Macron has condemned the violence against journalists in a tweet. However, shortly after his election in 2017, Macron said that journalists “have a problem. They’re interested way too much in themselves and not enough in the country.”. On a train headed to Paris, Benjamin Griveaux, Macron’s Government Spokesman, reportedly told a Vanity Fair France reporter, “You, the press, are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the 7th district of Paris.”

Active members of the Gilets Jaunes have announced that a third round of protests will happen this Saturday. Stanislas de Saint Hippolyte, the editor in chief for French channel CNEWS, says that for future Gilets Jaunes protests, every team of his reporters will have at least one security agent as well as helmets, glasses, masks, and microphones without the CNEWS logo at their disposal. “Security,” he says, “comes before everything else.” Jean-Luc Thomas and the BFM crew, lead by Forquès, have filed an official complaint with the police.

Thomas will likely not cover this round of protests in Toulouse. But he’s firm about coming back in the future. “There’s no question that I would stop covering this,” he says. “That would mean a victory for their violence.”

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Martin Goillandeau and Makana Eyre are the authors. Martin Goillandeau is a French reporter from Lille who just graduated from the Columbia Journalism School. Before coming to the US, he covered the 2017 French election as a student in Paris. Martin has also worked for several TV and radio outlets in his home country. Makana Eyre is an American reporter based in Paris, France. He is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School, where he was a fellow at the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. Makana works as a freelance correspondent for the Haitian Times, covering the Haitian diaspora in Europe.