Police In France Arrest Yellow Vest Leader, As ‘Crackdown’ On Protests Begins

Demonstrators hold their hands up as they take part in the demonstration of the yellow vests near the Arc de Triomphe on December 08, 2018 in Paris France. ''Yellow Vests' ('Gilet Jaunes' or 'Vestes Jaunes') is a protest movement without political affiliation which was inspired by opposition to a new fuel tax. After a month of protests, which have wrecked parts of Paris and other French cities, there are fears the movement has been infiltrated by'ultra-violent' protesters. Today's protest has involved about 5,000 demonstrators so far, who have gathered in the Paris city centre, and police have made at least 211 arrests so far.
Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

French police arrested a prominent Yellow Vest movement leader in Paris on Wednesday night, according to the New York Times. Eric Drouet, a 33-year-old truck driver, was picked up by riot police by the Champs-Élysées and charged with organizing an undeclared demonstration, a crime that could bring up to six months in jail and fines of €7,500 (roughly $8,500 USD).

This marks the second charge to be laid against Drouet. In June, he’ll be tried for carrying a prohibited category D weapon after police claim he was wielding a wooden baton during a previous protest. While Drouet denies being a leader of the largely decentralized Yellow Vest movement, he claims the arrests are a political harassment for his visible role in the protests that have seen hundreds of thousands take to the streets to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s austerity agenda.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the first protest on November 17, 2018, saw more than 250,000 people mobilize across France, many of them wearing the reflective yellow safety jackets all French citizens must keep in the trunks of their car. Originally formed as a response to a new fuel tax, the protests have since grown to represent a general dissatisfaction with the government’s policies and the rising costs of living in France.

Those protests have regularly turned violent over the course of the past six weeks, with elements of the crowd firebombing cars and smashing store windows. Riot police have responded forcefully with tear gas and batons. Despite the widespread chaos and over 1,400 injuries, CNN notes only 10 people have died. Many of those were victims of car accidents caused by blockades set up by the Yellow Jackets on roads and roundabouts, although Vox notes an 80-year-old woman died in Marseilles after being hit in the face by a tear gas canister.

Initially pressured by the movement into repealing the fuel tax and granting other superficial concessions, President Macron struck a much more defiant tone during his New Year’s Eve address to the nation.

“Let’s stop running ourselves down and making believe that France is a country where solidarity doesn’t exist,” he said, via France24. “We live in one of the biggest economies in the world, with some of the best infrastructure in the world, we pay little or nothing for our children’s schooling and we are treated by excellent doctors at some of the lowest costs in the developed world.”

He vowed to maintain law and order “without compromise” and painted the Yellow Vest movement as being taken over by extremist factions who “speak in the name of the people when in fact they are merely speaking for a hateful mob that takes after elected officials, the police, journalists, Jews, foreigners, and homosexuals.”

Drouet’s arrest comes as what the New York Times believes may be the start of a larger crackdown on Yellow Vest protesters. But the NYT also notes the state must tread cautiously lest it accidentally breathe new life into the movement, which has seen its numbers dwindle down to 70,000 participants over recent holiday weekends.