Gavin Mortimer

What’s the truth about the Gilets jaunes?

What's the truth about the Gilets jaunes?
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Marine Le Pen spent last Saturday commenting on the scenes from the Champs-Elysées as the latest Gilets Jaunes demonstration turned violent. She also had the opportunity to respond to Christophe Castaner, the interior minister who, as cobbles rained down on the heads of the riot police, accused Le Pen of inciting the far-right to go on the rampage.

Le Pen rejected the allegations, saying she had done no such thing; and anyway, as far as the National Rally leader was concerned, the people running amok in the capital weren't from the far-right. Le Pen's view was endorsed by Marion Maréchal, who unlike her aunt, chose to witness the latest manifestation of working-class discontent not from the warmth of a television studio but from within their ranks on the Champs-Elysées.

She turned up unannounced and evidently incognito, only revealing her presence in a tweet sent on Saturday afternoon in response to Castaner's accusation of far-right violence. The pair have history, having faced each other in the French regional elections of 2015, when Castaner, standing as a Socialist, was beaten by the then-National Front MP. Maréchal referenced that defeat in her sardonic tweet before noting that she found it "pathetic" that the minister was so quick to blame the violence on the far-right. Why, she wondered, hadn't he been so quick to point the finger at the far-left during the May Day violence in Paris? Or for that matter with the students vandalising universities? Or the environmental protestors fighting running battles with the police earlier this year?

In a subsequent interview with Le Figaro, Maréchal described her day on the Champs-Elysées. It was a spur of the moment decision to join the protest, she claimed, but when she arrived it was to discover that the "real Gilets Jaunes had long since departed". What remained, explained Maréchal, was a hardcore of far-left activists. "We heard cries of 'Death to Capitalism!'. If that's the extreme-right, it's certainly changed!"

Then again, who is to say that the people decrying capitalism weren't from one of the increasing number of far-right groups cropping across the country? Similarly, the far-left aren't so principled that they might not pose as the other extreme of the political spectrum, brandishing a French flag in one hand and a cobblestone in another.

According to reports in the French media, the backgrounds of the 101 people arrested on Saturday are diverse. They travelled to the capital from all four corners of the country and most had no political allegiance and no criminal record. That's not the case with the orchestrators, however, who have been identified as hardened far-left activists, men and women well versed in organising violence and in evading arrest.

Such revelations are embarrassing for Castaner, and also for Gérald Darmanin, the budget minister, who had described the troublemakers as a "brown plague", a reference to the Nazis' power grab in Germany in the early 1930s. The Paris police préfect, Michel Delpuech, also swiftly accused the far-right of being the ringleaders.

They are not alone in being unable to get a handle on the situation. Even those politicians who broadly support the aims of the Gilets Jaunes are unsure what to do; Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left France Insoumise, announced on Thursday that he will be attending Saturday's protest in Paris "but away from the cameras". If things turn ugly, and there's a good chance they will, he doesn't want to be associated with any violence.

The same goes for Le Pen and Laurent Wauquiez, the leader of the centre-right Républicains. In addition, none of them knows how they might be received if they made a grand entrance in front of the cameras. The trio style themselves as 'politicians of the people' but in reality they're part of the privileged political elite, and it was only a few weeks ago that Mélenchon – the man who claims to speak for the working-class – was caught on camera mocking the regional accent of a female journalist.

Mélenchon's intention to join Saturday's march didn't go down well with a group of Gilets jaunes demonstrating at Roanne in the Loire. "To all of you," said one protestor, addressing the political class as a whole, "you are no longer needed. The Gilets Jaunes movement is in place and it's us who are going to make the new world. We have no need of these politicians, it's us who are going to win."

That sort of fighting talk will alarm the Élysée Palace but it's more what will unfold in Paris on Saturday that is focusing the minds of the government. The far-left union, the CGT, has called on people to march on the capital to protest against the diminishing purchasing power and a Facebook page has been launched exhorting citizens to join in the third 'Macron resign' demonstration.

The focus of the people's wrath flew to Argentina yesterday for this weekend's G20 summit and it is becoming increasingly hard for Macron to burnish his international credentials when his country is in such turmoil. For the moment he is refusing to budge on the question of fuel tax increases but frankly that's no longer the major issue.

It's the provinces against Paris, the have-nots against the haves and the nationalists against the progressives. What it isn't is the left against right. They're in this together, united by fury, and that's why the government is so worried.