Intelligence and security services in France are investigating whether Russian involvement on social media and other platforms is playing a role in amplifying the so-called ‘yellow vests’ movement. Known in French as le mouvement des gilets jaunes, the campaign began online in May of this year as a popular protest against rising fuel prices and the high cost of living in France. In mid-November, the movement made its first public appearance with large demonstrations that have continued every weekend since then. Yellow vest protesters claim that tax increases are dis-proportionally affecting working- and middle-class people and that everyday life is becoming economically unsustainable in France. Some of the demonstrations have turned violent, and so far at least eight people have died as a result. The ensuing crisis has become the most significant threat to the government of Emmanuel Macron, as the protests are increasingly evolving into an anti-Macron rallies.
So far, the yellow vests campaign has been largely bipartisan, bringing together protestors from the entirety of the French political spectrum. Additionally, there are no identified leaders or coordinators of the movement. However, some suspect that Russian government operatives may be further-inflaming an already incensed protest movement. On Friday, The Wall Street Journalsaid that French security agencies were investigating potential involvement by the Kremlin in the yellow vests campaign. The paper quoted an unnamed French government cybersecurity official as saying that “there has been some suspect activity [and] we are in the process of looking at its impact”. The official was referring to the online activity of some leading social-media accounts involved with the yellow vests, which appear to also be “promoting Russian-backed coverage” of French politics. The Journal also cites Ryan Fox, a cybersecurity expert for the Texas-based firm New Knowledge, who claims that “several hundred accounts on Twitter and Facebook” that are involved in the yellow vests movement “are very likely controlled by Moscow”.
However, there is disagreement among cybersecurity experts about the extent of the Kremlin’s involvement in the yellow vests. Paris has previously accused Moscow of trying to influence the direction of French politics. In February of 2017, France’s Directorate-General for External Security warned that Russia had launched a secret operation to try to influence the outcome of that year’s French presidential election in favor of the far right. However, if such an effort existed, it failed to stop the rise to power of Emmanuel Macron. Since assuming the country’s presidency, Macron has been a leading international critic of Russia’s domestic and foreign policies. The Kremlin, therefore, has strong reasons to want to see a premature end to Macron’s presidency.
This does not necessarily mean that Moscow has been able to anticipate —let alone influence— the yellow vests movement, whose energy has surprised even the most experienced French political observers. The Journal notes that many leading Western cybersecurity bodies, including the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, have “not seen significant evidence of state-sponsored interference” in the yellow vests movement, whether by Russia or any other government. Facebook also said that its monitors have not uncovered any evidence of an organized campaign by Moscow to coax the yellow vests protests. The paper also cited Dimitri Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, who categorically denied allegations that Russia was in any way involved in directing yellow vests activists.