The Media Today

Yellow Vest protesters continue to assault journalists

January 15, 2019

In late November, as the Gilets Jaunes—or Yellow Vests—protest movement took hold in France, Martin Goillandeau and Makana Eyre wrote for CJR that participants were harassing, and even assaulting, journalists. Since then, the protests have become a weekly occurrence. So, too, have threats against reporters. “The harassment and violence have got worse,” Eyre told me this morning. “I went to the Saturday protests in Paris to shoot photos and see how big it would get. This was the first time that I really felt nervous with my camera… I saw people interfering with broadcasts, shouting at media teams, and getting in their faces. For much of it, I had my camera in my coat.”

This past weekend, a group of Yellow Vests in the northern city of Rouen set upon two journalists working for LCI, a French TV news broadcaster; they were spared by two bodyguards, one of whom ended up in hospital with a broken nose. Protesters aggressed another LCI team in Paris. In Toulon, two Agence France-Presse reporters were chased by about 10 people, while in nearby Marseille, photographers were hassled and blocked from taking pictures. In Toulouse, a group of protesters trapped a 31-year-old local journalist in her car and threatened her with rape. “They wanted me to open my window. I told them it wasn’t possible, that I had to go and pick up my son,” she recalled. “A man threatened me that I had two seconds to get out.” Organized groups have hampered newspapers’ core operations, too: overnight on Friday, for example, about 30 Yellow Vests blocked regional newspaper La Voix du Nord’s distribution depot and threatened to burn a truck, stopping 20,000 copies of the paper from being delivered. On Sunday, trash cans were set on fire outside the same paper’s offices. While no motive was immediately established, its director doesn’t think it was an accident.

Hatred of the news media among Yellow Vests derives from a poisonous cocktail of old and new grievances: as the sociologist Jean-Marie Charon told Le Monde, French radicals’ longstanding distrust of the press has been exacerbated of late by perceived negative coverage and anti-corporate rhetoric aimed at the big media companies. Public trust in journalists is critically low. And the media has lacked consistent support from politicians, who, as in the US and elsewhere, have indulged anti-press attacks more frequently in recent years. On Saturday, Noëlle Lenoir, a former government minister and (ironically) president of Radio France’s ethics committee, tweeted that the LCI journalists in Rouen bore responsibility for being attacked.

Yellow Vests’ attacks on journalists are complicated by the fact that it’s unclear who, broadly speaking, might reasonably be held accountable for them, or call for them to stop. The Yellow Vests movement is highly diffuse: while some activists have effectively become spokespeople, it lacks leadership and a coherent ideological agenda. An unpopular hike in diesel tax sparked the protests—neon yellow vests only became a symbol because French motorists are obliged to keep them in their cars—but that policy has long since been scrapped, and still tensions continue. Copycat movements have started, albeit on a much smaller scale, in other European countries, including the UK. But again, beyond a general sense of anti-establishment rage, it’s not easy to define what links different “Yellow Vests” movements.

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For now, politicians and well-intentioned activists—via public platforms and out on the streets—should speak out in support of the press, and look out for the journalists who, by doing their jobs, are putting themselves in harm’s way. And media-watchers in the US should pay attention. In France, the fear of routine physical violence against reporters has become real.

Below, more on the Yellow Vests:

  • “We want your skin”: In November, Goillandeau and Eyre recounted shocking early examples of attacks on reporters. In Toulouse, for example, “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.”
  • In the ring: While the Yellow Vests movement lacks a coherent structure, some activists have gained a wide following on social media or personal press attention. The Financial Times’s Domitille Alain and Victor Mallet profile eight important figures, including Christophe Dettinger, a former French boxing champion who was filmed punching police officers in Paris last month.
  • Talking it out: On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron, who the Yellow Vests want to resign, announced a three-month “national debate” he hopes will quell the protests. While he promised to listen, however, he said his economic-reform agenda would continue.
  • Empty vests: “Yellow Vests” has become fraught shorthand for reporters; while the symbol has become ubiquitous in France, it’s increasingly meaningless in ideological terms. In the UK, meanwhile, both far-left and far-right protesters have appropriated it. The Guardian’s Ben Quinn and Jon Henley track the fight for ideological ownership.

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Thank you to everyone who can’t redact documents properly

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.