Weekend after weekend, French President Emmanuel Macron is dealing with sometimes violent protests from a populist movement known as the gilets jaunes (yellow vests). The protesters were galvanized by a plan to raise gasoline taxes, but they are still out in the streets even though the gas tax increase has been suspended. Now they’re demanding, among other things, default on the public debt, exit from the European Union and NATO, and less immigration. I’m dealing with a piece of the online fallout — and in the process learning a dispiriting lesson about how hard it is for a political leader to pursue a moderate path in an age of extremes.
On Dec. 3, amid pictures of burning cars and tear gas in Paris, I woke up to find incessant Twitter criticism of an article I’d written. This was hardly shocking; I’m attacked online all the time. What surprised me was that I was being attacked for a Commentary article published 18 months earlier, shortly after Macron’s election. I posted it on Twitter on June 15, 2017, with the headline: “To defeat populism, America needs its own Macron — a charismatic leader who can make centrism cool.”
This tweet has now earned me a torrent of online abuse. Sean Davis, the co-founder of a pro-Trump website, tweeted: “This 2017 column is a riot.” The right-wing actor James Woods retweeted the article with the gloating tag line: “Twitter is beautiful.” Left-wing journalist Glenn Greenwald apparently thought my article was so ridiculous he retweeted it without any comment at all. Breitbart’s former London editor wrote: “This aged well, didn’t it, @maxboot?”
I was struck by how many versions of the same criticism were repeated by anonymous trolls, and it made me wonder if Russian bots were involved. When I suggested as much in a tweet, I earned a rebuke from the right-wing British conspiracy-monger Katie Hopkins, who has lost her Mail Online column but retains 882,000 Twitter followers: “The world thinks you are a cockwomble, sir. If you are looking for someone to blame -- find a mirror darling.” I have no idea what a “cockwomble” is, but it doesn’t sound like a compliment. The irony is that some of the Twitter accounts scoffing at my questions about bots had so few followers that they might be bots themselves.
I asked the information warfare expert Molly McKew what was going on. She replied: “Major Russian info campaign on the Yellow Jackets/Vests protests, so you just kicked the wrong hornets. Over the weekend all the ‘Syria’ accounts were tweeting about how French had snipers on the rooftops to shoot the demonstrators.” The Hamilton 68 website, which tracks Russian disinformation online, confirmed that two of the top Russian hashtags were “giletsjaune” and “France.” Among the Russians cheerleading the protests online is the notorious fascist and pro-Putin ideologue Alexander Dugin. Meanwhile, Russian state media outlets such as RT were hyping chaos in Paris as if it were a “color” revolution.
BuzzFeed reports that the “yellow vests” emerged out of “Anger Groups” that popped up on Facebook to channel the grievances of “fed up” rural, working-class French people — the Gallic version of President Trump’s deplorables or the tea party. Just as in the United States, their online propaganda included a great deal of misinformation. Activists circulated a picture of cars stranded on a highway, claiming it showed German motorists who had abandoned their cars to protest fuel taxes. In fact, the picture was likely of a traffic jam in China. Another popular meme claimed that a 2016 government decree had invalidated the French constitution and that everything that has happened since, including the gas tax, is illegitimate.
There is no evidence that I have seen that Russia social media ignited the protests, but they certainly added fuel to the fire. So have far-left and far-right trolls in and out of France — the Illiberal International. Macron has angered the left by cutting taxes on the wealthy, slashing regulations and curbing the power of unions. You would think this would have made him the darling of the right, which applauds Trump for similar moves. But Macron’s desire to curb global warming (the goal of the higher gas tax), his support for the European Union and NATO, his unabashed elitism (he once worked for the Rothschild investment bank, a bogeyman for anti-Semites), and his clashes with Trump have made him a target of the far right, too. Trump himself applauded the protests, falsely claiming they are chanting, “We want Trump.” The right would like to see Marine Le Pen take over; the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The Kremlin would prefer either one to a centrist who will stymie its designs to divide Europe.
Macron has hurt his own cause with his arrogant, aloof style — as his 23 percent approval rating attests. But any president, no matter how deft, would be hard-put to reform a sclerotic French economy that has produced high unemployment and low growth. Macron’s challenge is all the harder because extremists of both the left and right have proved so deft at using social media to organize. The trolls who flamed me are transparently rooting for Macron’s failure. Their slogan might as well be: Burn, baby, burn.
I remain an admirer of Macron and would still love to see an “American Macron” — a centrist who can win power in Washington. But his struggles are a reminder of how hard it is to be in the middle of the road in the polarized social-media world of today.