Intolerance and conspiracy theories have haunted the margins of France’s “yellow vest” movement since the first protests over fuel taxes roused the discontented middle of French society.
The men and women in fluorescent safety vests blocking traffic and intimidating shoppers on the famed Champs-Elysees Avenue vent a range of grievances against the government.
But over 11 weeks of yellow vest protests, views from the fringes have bubbled through the diffuse and leaderless movement and have been amplified: anti-Semitic rants about banking, assaults on journalists, and claims the government concocted terrorist attacks or deadly accidents to divert attention from the demonstrations.
There has been scattered violence at the protests, with clashes between participants and riot police, and authorities worry that the extremists have taken over the center of the movement, risking a return to the darker episodes from France’s past.
After the boisterous protesters largely complied with a moment of silence for Holocaust victims, Deputy Mayor Jean-Dominique Durand, who organized the memorial, urged the group to “clean house” of any extremist views.
“It was an important moment to show that anti-Semitism has no place here,” said yellow vest protester Thomas Rigaud, according to Europe 1 radio.
Some of France’s most notorious anti-Semitic personalities have been seen at the forefront of some of the Paris protests.
One of them, Herve Ryssen, appeared on the cover of the weekly Paris Match, facing police as he stood before the Arc de Triomphe.
Ryssen has been convicted repeatedly of anti-Semitism and provoking acts of discrimination.
He was convicted again last week for Holocaust denial, a crime in France for decades that harkens back to the country’s history of surrendering French Jews to the occupying Nazis to be killed.
Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux acknowledged that protests varied from town to town, but said last week that some were marked by “paramilitaries close to the extreme right.”
Among them were Victor Lenta, a former soldier who fought alongside pro-Russian separatist forces in Ukraine.
Maxime Nicolle, a YouTube personality who goes by the handle Fly Rider, and Eric Drouet, a trucker who was among the early yellow vest organizers, also have emerged as prominent voices.