JANUARY 31, 2019
I’m currently in Poland working on some reporting ventures, but decided to post an update of my experiences several weeks ago covering the yellow vest protests in Rouen, France. More to come.
I covered a large yellow vest demonstration in Rouen, France on January 12 of this year. A mid-sized city in Normandy with a rich history that helped define medieval Europe, Rouen is truly remarkable. However, on Saturday, January 12 – as on the past nine Saturdays of yellow vest protests – the atmosphere was charged with anger. Billowing clouds of teargas enveloped the streets as thousands of protesters marched and chanted in hi-vis vests, some with anti-Emmanuel Macron messages scrawled on the back in black Sharpie. Police stood arrayed formation with riot shields, blocking avenues and launching tear gas grenades. Yellow vests gave them the finger, shouting angry accusations and vulgarities, while many others simply walked resolutely on, ignoring police, who have committed various excesses against protesters including the elderly and those fleeing them. Eleven individuals have been killed and over 1,400 injured in situations related to the protests, including various incidents where vehicles collided with pedestrians at barricades; in one case an elderly woman killed in her apartment by a police tear gas grenade that accidentally hit her at the window. Some protesters have lost limbs. Police excess has become of particular concern among citizens and yellow vests since officers began using “flash balls” which have blinded and seriously injured some yellow vests. Flash balls are an ostensibly non-deadly weapon used instead of rubber bullets. They are small, soft rubber projectiles that hit with tremendous force like a handgun but less per square inch rendering them non-lethal in most cases. Needless to say they can still do some real damage such as taking out eyes, causing heart attacks and so forth. Some police in Paris are now also carrying semi-automatic weapons.
I arrived in the early afternoon Saturday in Rouen and went directly downtown, where I observed long lines of protesters, some in yellow vests, some not. They were shouting at police, singing anti-Macron songs and pushing over flower pots. A game of cat-and-mouse ensued through the beautiful medieval streets of Rouen, with protesters retreating at a run in a barrage of tear gas canisters and then defiantly marching further down other streets. Despite running fast when the canisters began falling I was also caught up in the clouds of tear gas and retreated at a run to a doorway up an alley. A yellow vest running by called out to ask if I was alright and gave me water for my eyes, which helped. I continued on after several minutes when the teargas had cleared, and observed that a the large barricade near St. Joan of Arc Church downtown had now been cleared by police, who stood surveying the scene. Burning garbage filled the air sandbags were strewn like a warzone across the smoky street, only meters from the site where St. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431. A young mother with a stroller peered hesitantly out from the doorway of a shop to check if it was safe to emerge onto the street.
The French government estimates that 84,000 yellow vests took to the streets Jan. 12 across the republic, while the movement claims they were 92,000 strong. Over 80,000 police were deployed to counter their march and, ostensibly, to forestall and deter potential violence or property damage. Some business owners I talked to in town, despite expressing sympathy for those who find it hard to make ends meet, where very concerned about damaged to businesses and the decline in sales because of interruptions every Saturday (Jan. 12 was “Act 9,” the ninth iteration of the original yellow vest protests which started in November, 2018). “No break-ins, no breaking news!” read one shop along a main street. The fact that it was boarded up with plywood belied either extra precaution or a past incident of yellow vest ire. Although some 60 percent of recent poll respondents in France sympathize with the yellow vests grievances, only around half that appear to support the methods they are using. Several businesspeople I spoke to in Rouen were concerned about the drop in sales and property damage, even while sympathizing with the economic and social concerns of the yellow vest movement as a whole.
The yellow vests are not generally fans of the mainstream media. Several journalists have been seriously assaulted in the past two weeks alone in Rouen. Whereas President Trump talks about beating up journalists, some yellow vests do so – with gusto. It is taken as a point of fact among yellow vests that French media has been unfairly hostile to yellow vests and sided with the government, although in many cases the media has given a fair hearing to the protesters, not only criticized them. In my case I waved and smiled and was met with perfectly agreeable behavior from the yellow vests, several of whom asked who I was, chatted with me, and explained their positions to me and why they were marching. Although many wore assorted masks, hoods, ski goggles and hats pulled low, they were mainly focused on police and were fine with me as long as I did not appear hostile or to be trying to intentionally expose their identities for law enforcement or some such endeavor.
Protesters are angry about the French government’s cut to public services such and the cost of living. The movement has drawn marked support from both the Front National on the right and the socialists on the left. Although the core of the yellow vests is undoubtedly the white French middle class, it includes increasing numbers of racial minorities and immigrants as well, who are joining their frustrations with the yellow vests. While in Rouen I stayed with a friend who works at a local radio in the poorer “ghetto” of Rouen called Haute-de-Rouen. On Monday he received a call from a listener concerned about pedestrians who had been traumatized downtown during the protests after the director of a shopping center would not unlock the front doors for them during a massive tear gas fusillade. The listener was also curious how more immigrants and non-white residents of the area were increasingly joining the yellow vests. I met a young woman who was interning there who moved to France from Algeria one year ago and had been with the yellow vests from the beginning. I also went on the radio with his colleagues to try my best at remembering my French.
Why did the French government cut services and how has Macron failed in the eyes of the yellow vests? The initial fuel tax last November – since rescinded – is seen as the impetus for the initial protests launched via a Facebook group of angry citizens and since then the movement has come to encompass everything from high taxes and relatively stagnant, low wages to anger over Macron’s policies that have benefited France’s rich and the financial sector over and above ordinary people. Macron’s attempted rapid transition to a “green economy” by taxing fuel and other measures has also come to be seen as an elitist push for ideology over the everyday concerns of the people. Major hikes in the cost of living push French citizens out of urban centers, leading them to areas where driving is much more necessary – and the price of fuel becomes vital, perhaps part of why it became the sparking point of the protests. Macron’s party La République En Marche! has a commanding majority in French parliament and has basically governed as it wants, leading to a feeling that Macron is pushing dictatorial policies as he wills. Several yellow vests told me they work multiple jobs and still don’t have enough at the end of the month, and said their kids in their 20s are even worse off. People do not feel represented by the government: they consider it their enemy and are no longer interested in conventional political engagement, voting or the idea of incremental improvement. Anarchists, communists, fascists may have their presence in some cases – but above all ordinary, working-class French citizens form the ranks of the yellow vest protesters.
Primarily, the yellow vests are populists, despite the attempt by the French right and left to seize on the energy of the revolt. The fight to claim populism for a particular agenda or political ideology is ongoing. Overly simplistic explanations of the phenomenon as well as an sneering condescension that it is just rowdy masses predominates in large sectors of the media and political elite, but the truth is that populism is quite difficult to pin down. It is also inaccurate to isolate its motivating factor as just economic anxiety. Surely ethno-nationalism, religious nationalism (see: India, Poland), and rapid acceleration of social and technological change also play their significant part in spurring economic anxiety into something even more visceral: a feeling of being left behind. As Peter C. Baker contends in The Guardian, despite overuse and oversimplification of the word populism it can be accurately summarized as a real force resulting from real governmental and societal failures across the world. As Baker (in my view accurately) writes: “thanks in large part to the persistent failure of governments across the west to enact anything resembling a credible vision of shared prosperity and security in the post-manufacturing era, we are now living through a time when familiar webs connecting citizens, ideologies and political parties are, if not falling apart, at least beginning to loosen and shift.”
Could there be a yellow vest movement in America? Clearly, the answer is yes. Think Occupy Wall Street with less hippies. Big banks have emerged with hardly a scratch after the devastating financial meltdown of 2008, while the conglomerate of lumbering bureaucratic government and monopolistic big business has left large elements of the left and right disgruntled and ready to hit the streets. If things don’t change it is only a matter of time until anger at “SJWs” or “right wing redneck fascists” is superseded by anger at the government itself. To be sure, the United States currently has a relatively strong job market and high economic numbers, but under the surface Americans are mired in debt (more than ever before), working multiple jobs and increasingly lonely and alienated from the polis. Especially hard hit are young Americans, who are also the most beleaguered by under and unemployment. This is practically a recipe for political revolt. There’s only so long Trump can play the victim to the Democrats and keep his base distracted with his ever-just-around-the-corner wall and scraps for the working class or that the Democrats can keep giving tax breaks to large corporations and voting for rampant military interventionism before the house of cards folds.
The more that the establishment left and right fail to address the populist anger roiling the voting ranks of the Republicans and Democrats the closer we come to America’s yellow vest moment. Hints of imitation have already popped up on the Bernie left and Trump right. Both are determined to take on the “globalists,” neoliberals and “Deep State” traitors who they blame for the world’s woes. Will America ignite like France in a sea of hi-vis vests? Stranger things have happened. French yellow vests are burning their cards for voting in elections. More and more are done with conventional political engagement. At recent townhalls launched to tamp down the yellow vest uprising, Macron listened to a number of regional mayors express their views. Headlines noted that despite giving lip service to some genuine concerns of protesters he also said that some yellow vests are just poor people “screwing around.” This is exactly the kind of attitude that fuels the intense anger on the streets and “the good people vs. the evil elites” narrative. Despite still being a distinct minority of active participants, the yellow vests enjoy majority sympathy in France and, after all, it is commonly said by historians that only three percent of Americans actively aided the American Revolution at the time it occurred. Time is running out for politicians, media, and democratic and religious institutions to work to rebuild the respect and value of labor and genuinely commit to a renewed sense of community and purpose – before the torches and pitchforks pop up over the hill.
OCTOBER 21, 2015
Unfortunately this blog section has taken a backseat in past months as I worked my days away in Collingwood before moving on to pursue freelance opportunities. Most recently that tack led me to New Hampshire where I reported on the presidential primary, getting a chance to cover everyone from Donald Trump and Marco Rubio to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, as well as several candidates who are no longer in the running. New Hampshire is an amazing and beautiful place and the people I met there were outstanding. Thanks to all the staffers who helped me out with campaign ins-and-outs. Also a shout-out to the great journalists I met on the trail, especially Nicolas Richter of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Hillary Vaughn of Fox News Channel, Christian Mower of 93.5 WMWV, freelance photographer Michael Vadon, Tom LoBianco of CNN, Gabriel Debenedetti of Politico and Prisca Pointdujour of the Boston Herald, along with many others and some good Granite State friends I made. I’m thankful for the opportunity and experiences.
I’m now back in on the West Coast of Canada in British Columbia. I’m in the process of getting involved with several journalistic opportunities and continuing to work on new ideas including a possible future documentary. Sidenote, Canada elected Justin Trudeau prime minister last night in a semi-landslide particularly after Quebec fled NDP Orange to go to the Trudeau camp. Interesting times, to say the least. I was working for Elections Canada in a local riding for the day and got a good look at the voting process. That’s it for now, although I am adding a section for breaking news that I have a unique angle or opinion on. I want to put up any such material up as it occurs so that even if the content is not sold to an outlet people have access to my latest thoughts and discoveries here on my website. Adios for now.
FEBRUARY 25, 2015
Long time no update. As noted in “About Me” I’m now working as editor of The Enterprise-Bulletin in Collingwood, Ont. northwest of Toronto. Things are certainly getting interesting here, especially with the addition of several local columnists who have ruffled feathers in some circles of local politics. For my part I’m still learning the ropes but am appreciative for the opportunity to represent an area comprising upwards of 60,000 people and touching on news that often has broader implications and ties to the region, country and internationally. This is particularly the case due to the local MP Kellie Leitch being Canada’s Minister of Labour and of the Status of Women as well as various local influential families and legacies connected to politics and public service from the municipal to provincial to federal levels. Will update the site soon with some clippings from some of the work I’ve done so far here up north.
OCTOBER 9, 2014
It was certainly an interesting week in Budapest, I must say. There to cover the European Congress organized by American Identitarian/white nationalist Richard Spencer, I decided to go to an informal pub night to meet Spencer and a few of those going to the conference. The actual conference had been delayed due to threats from the Prime Minister and a number of speakers therefore not coming. Well, it turned out things were going to get a lot more intense, as Spencer was detained without charge and eventually arrested and deported for being declared a “national security threat,” by Viktor Orbán which I cover in my piece “The Nationalists’ Lost Mojo” for Roads & Kingdoms and an upcoming piece for Foreign Policy which I will link as soon as it’s out.
Seeing how much ideas and discussions can anger and drive a government to action was interesting, to say the least. What would have remained a likely fairly marginal conference is now receiving a lot of media attention precisely because it basically didn’t happen and the leader was hauled to jail and sent home before he could even speak.
One other note: Budapest is an amazing city. I’ve been gone two days and already miss it. Update soon.
SEPTEMBER 26, 2014
I’m off to Hungary in several days, where I will be covering the Future of Europe Identitarian Congress, organized by the National Policy Institute. Essentially a gathering of white nationalist academics and Hungarian political elements including Jobbik, the event will be a unique look inside Europe’s growing far right. From there I am still deciding what to do and will either come back to Georgia or Armenia to cover the Nagorno Karabakh Republic conflict or continue on to Austria, where I hope to explore the situation of the FPÖ and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Austria.
SEPTEMBER 4, 2014
This update is a bit late. Well two weeks late. It’s been fairly uneventful, although my pieces went up. “Georgian winemakers ready to toast end of EU tariffs,” and “You can’t go home again,” both worked out fairly well. Now I’m planning my next move. I have several stories to do here in Georgia and then I may well head to Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia for a time. One of my Georgian stories is basically a go, while the other is awaiting some permission from sources to speak to them. To be honest things have been slow. I’m happiest when I’m working and busy, so with a little bit of self-motivation and hopefully some partnership, networking and team work I’m going to get the show back on the road. Also a piece I did about how the hassle of home-cooked meals on women could be related to a bigger social breakdown went up today on the Federalist. Check it out, if you so desire.
AUGUST 5, 2014
I spent the past two weeks at the hostel near Batumi basically waiting for my Abkhazian visa to come through and then left for Sukhumi (or Sukhum, depending on your nationality/politics) for the next week. The border was fun, including a horse-drawn cart that cost a Lari on the Georgian side and a walk through some fenced in walkways to talk to the Russians, who were OK on the way in but quite suspicious of me on the way out.
Upon arrival in Sukhumi I noticed two guys speaking English with a French accent and the word “guesthouse.” Seeing as I hadn’t arranged accommodations I teamed up with them and jumped out of the marshutka. The two guys, who happened to be French journalists as I later found out, were called Camille and Bruno. We were shown to a guesthouse for three hundred rubles a night (about 10 dollars).
(The guesthouse was also the place I met a heavyset Russian man with a Dolph Lundgren haircut who was a chess and table tennis coach, supposedly. He loudly asked where we were from and announced he was from “Ze Russian Federation!” and made it clear we weren’t super welcome. Several days later when I came back to check out he basically accosted me, accused me of being a spy or working for the FBI and in a half-joking, belligerent manner made it clear he wasn’t quite buying that I’m a journalist interested in Abkhazia. “But what interest you about our Abkhazia and the region here?” he demanded repeatedly. He also guffawed as he announced how much the West was deluded that Abkhazia is in any way ruled or controlled by Russia. We’d all be friends drinking chacha if not for all the meddling West, he claimed. He admitted the past days that he had thought the three of us were “masking” (spying, presumably). As I told him I wish I was working for some agency, because I’d probably have a lot more money. I also probably wouldn’t stay in a public guesthouse where I could be approached by random Russians, nor would I go somewhere almost everyone speaks Russian without speaking it. But, you know, details.)
In the five days I was there we did interviews of the foreign minister of Abkhazia Viacheslav Chirikba, enjoyed some time on the stone beaches packed with Russian tourists, looked around Sukhumi and got the chance to visit an amazing family for a few days.
I also managed to break my phone for the second time, this time by being too rough in taking out the Georgian SIM card when I bought an Abkhaz one in Gali. As I walked around asking if there was a repair shop I went into a photocopy centre where I met a young man called Daniel from Syria. Daniel (photo centre) is enthusiastic and speaks English at a level sometimes better than a native speaker. As he said he had a private tutor in Damascus from North Carolina. His family are refugees from the Syrian conflict. Ethnic Akhaz who were deported by Russia in the 1800s during the Caucasian War live all over including Egypt, Turkey and Syria.
Daniel invited me to stay at their home for a few days and I also asked if the French guys could come: I reckoned it would make their Abkhazian trip even better and I was right. It was nice to get up in the cool air of the mountain foothills and enjoy the quiet of the country.
Daniel’s family lives in a northern region of Abkhazia, with a house given to them after they arrived by neighbours, a bit of furniture from the UN and plates and basics also given by neighbours. As Daniel said when they first arrived in Sukhumi before moving to the village some people thought they were entirely Arabic culture or not really Abkhazian, but after seeing them dance at a wedding they said “After 150 years you haven’t forgotten our dances, you really are one of us.”
Daniel and his two younger brothers commute to Sukhumi for work and also garden and farm around the house. The hospitality and welcoming attitude of the family was incredible, his mother and relatives served us the most amazing food, his father is a great dad and they are doing their best to carve out a new life, but also feel like nothing is stable anymore. What the family’s been through is so much, but they gave us everything they had including delicious food and a lot of laughs. We also went to the river several kilometres away on the last day we stayed there and swam in the freezing water and built a kind of dam/pool.
I hope to write an article about Daniel and another article about Abkhazia and its geopolitics. I wrote one from the Georgian side that will be at Foreign Policy soon so now I’d like to do another that tells more how Abkhaz see their situation and relation to Georgia and Russia.
I’m still waiting for my past article to be up on BBC, and hope it resolves OK with recent news that Russia is cancelling its Free Trade Agreement with Georgia. More to come.
JULY 25, 2014
I’m near Batumi on Georgia’s Black Sea coast finishing up an article for BBC. The past week has been quite the adventure — talking to one of the top economists in Georgia, touring an organic winery in the Iori river valley of Kakheti, getting an inside view of the Georgian dairy industry near Akhaltsikhe and getting stuck in a jeep crossing a river to a large blueberry plantation near Ureki.
Incidentally the trip to the winery also involved crossing a river.
As Georgia prepares to begin economic integration with the EU it’s certainly an interesting time over here. It isn’t all sunshine and roses, either. The Agreement will likely see a rise in food prices as Georgia opens its economy to more EU goods and must meet EU standards even for domestic production. The long term benefits, however, could be significant, especially as education and technology gain a stronger foothold in the hinterlands of post-Soviet thinking that still abounds, especially in rural Georgia.
I will post my piece when it is published, and also have other news coming up about a second piece I did recently that will soon be published at Foreign Policy.