Political ambitions reveal cracks in yellow vest movement

A demonstrator returns a tear gas grenade during a demonstration called by the CGT (General Working Confederation) union, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 in Lille, northern France. Workers, public servants, and retired people were invited to march during a strike called by the CGT (General Working Confederation) union. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
A demonstrator kicks in a tear gas grenade during a demonstration called by the CGT (General Working Confederation) union, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 in Paris. Workers, public servants, and retired people were invited to march during a strike called by the CGT (General Working Confederation) union. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

PARIS — Having brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets over the past three months in protest at French President Emmanuel Macron's politics, yellow vest activists now want to build on their street cred to achieve electoral success.

But the movement, named after the fluorescent garments French motorists must carry, is divided: it has no appointed leader, gathers people from across the political spectrum and has an array of demands.

With the next elections to the European Parliament set for the end of May, no fewer than four groups from the grassroots movement could submit lists of candidates for the ballot. Some media-savvy yellow vest figures also are tempted to run under the mantle of traditional political parties trying to take advantage of their popularity.

No wonder unity seems impossible to achieve within a movement featuring multiple political currents and fighting for a multitude of demands, ranging from the reintroduction of France's wealth tax on the country's richest people to the implementation of popular votes allowing citizens to propose new laws.

In any case, the prospect of yellow vest lists has triggered criticism from inside their own ranks, revealing cracks in the burgeoning movement.

Despite recent opinion polls suggesting that a yellow vest list could garner as much as 13 percent of the votes at the May 26 election, and inflict serious damage to both far-right and far-left parties, many protesters have warned against the idea of entering the political fray.

"A yellow vest list is a serious mistake," Francois Boulo, a popular figure of the movement in western France, told The Associated Press this week. "The European Parliament has no power to improve people's life while yellow vests want to get immediate and concrete improvements. Besides, yellow vest lists will weaken opposition parties in the election and automatically reinforce the ruling party."

Among the groups of yellow vests planning to field candidates, the Citizens' Initiative Rally is expected to be led by a 31-year-old care worker, Ingrid Levavasseur.

"To me it's obvious, we need to seize the electoral sphere," Levavasseur said. "It's just the first step. Next will be the local elections. It's time for us to build something. Some yellow vests are really angry, but many others have said they want to join the list."

According to Frederic Mestdjian, who works closely with Levavasseur, about 100 people have already expressed the desire to join their list.

"We are open to dialogue and want to achieve unity," he told the AP. "People start to realize that traditional parties don't answer their expectations. Having a list has become an absolute necessity."

However, another figure of the movement has criticized Levavasseur's choice to run for candidate. Benjamin Cauchy is accusing her of lacking a clear political vision and is worried the characteristics of the cross-party movement could be lost if yellow vest lists are entered.

Cauchy, who has sympathies for the right wing, said he has been offered places on lists set up by traditional parties, including The Republicans and the far-right National Rally movement.

Levavasseur said her list is apolitical, although some of her supporters have met with Italy's deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio this week. Seeking foreign allies ahead of the elections, the Five Star leader boasted on Twitter after the meeting that "the wind of change has crossed the Alps." Di Maio said last month his populist movement was ready to help yellow vest protesters. The French government has condemned what it sees as foreign interference in domestic politics, and on Wednesday recalled its ambassador to Italy.

The others expected to front lists, if they manage to gather enough candidates, are singer Francis Lalanne; Patrick Cribouw, a former commercial director; and Thierry Paul Valette, who founded a movement called National Equality that focuses on combating corruption and holding lawmakers to account.

Like Levavasseur, Valette has found himself on the receiving end of sharp criticism since he announced his bid. Last week, he was beaten up by yellow vest protesters who tried to make him leave a demonstration.

"They kicked me in the back but it's not my style to cave in to intimidation," he said during a phone interview.

"Being a yellow vest does not mean rejecting institutions. Some people disagree with my list. I want to speak with them and make them understand the movement should evolve. One can't fight for more democracy and reject politics at the same time. The adventure has only just begun, it's not finished."

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