‘Freedom Convoy’ protests come to Europe — Analysis
France is likely to see a lot more tension regarding Canada-inspired trucker protests because of its upcoming election.
The ‘Freedom Convoy’ has well and truly arrived in Europe. Inspired by the Canadian protests, people opposed to Covid passports or mask mandates descended upon Paris on Saturday. This caused chaos and resulted in over 50 arrests. They plan to now move to Brussels to join an even bigger demonstration throughout Europe.
France’s authorities were prepared for protests unlike Canada. French police clearly stated that truckers who block roads will be punished with a fine of 4,500 euros. More than 7000 officers were assigned to toll booths strategically to keep them out. But this did not deter those determined to protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s Covid rules, which were brought into force in January. Convoys traveled from Toulouse, Le Mans and Nice to arrive at Paris.
Although the French police claimed that they had prevented at least 500 vehicles from entering the city and had handed out 300 fines, around 3,000 vehicles of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ managed to make it into the centre of Paris and block the Champs Elysees.
What does all this mean in the big scheme of things? It is clear that many Europeans feel frustrated by their restrictive Covid policies. Some are even willing to take action. France’s presidential elections are scheduled for April, making the situation more complicated politically.
That alone helps explain why President Macron has been relatively restrained in his denunciation of the protests, merely admitting that there was “fatigue” linked to the Covid outbreak and calling “for the utmost calm.” This represents a sharp change in tack from Macron, who only last month said that he wanted to “p**s off” those who refused the vaccination and were opposed to his Covid passport scheme. Now it seems he has his wish and probably regrets the bravado he displayed before.
Macron vows to ‘piss off’ the unvaxxed into submission
Macron’s somewhat subdued response is because he knows that he cannot afford for the situation to escalate so near to the presidential election. Macron is aware that politics has language and that he will need every vote in order to be elected again as president of the Elysee. Macron does not wish to see another Yellow Vest-style campaign return to France, as it would be a disaster for his presidency.
On the other side, his rivals are still trailing him in polls and this is exactly what they need. Marine Le Pen, for example, has said that she “understood” the protesters’ goals and pondered whether it was the beginning of “another form” of the Yellow Vest demonstrations. Macron, at the very least, sees the importance of not allowing for excessive grandstanding or harsh denunciations about the protests.
Whereas Macron has been somewhat restrained, this has not been the case with the media, which is eager to accuse the ‘freedom convoys’ of being part of some global far right plot. Indeed, in Canada the truckers have been painted as “white supremacists” by politicians and the media, and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau accused the truckers of “hate, abuse and racism.” Unsurprisingly, the US media is also indulging in these far right conspiracy theories, which has been augmented by the fact that their bogeyman, former President Donald Trump, has voiced his support for the Canadian truckers.
But, we are back in Europe. They will be moving northward to Brussels from Paris. They will meet truckers from Europe on Monday to disrupt the European District which contains the European Parliament and European Commission.
Belgian officials are clearly aware of the danger and have increased border controls. In addition, the Mayor of Brussels Philippe Close has announced that he and Belgian ministers have banned the ‘Freedom Convoy’ because no application had been made to the city authorities to allow the protest to take place.
My personal experiences with how Brussels authorities handle unauthorised protests are not pleasant. Inflatable bulldozers were used to protest the EU Constitution in Brussels by UKIP in 2007. We were told we didn’t have the right application. Our inflatable was cut and this brought an abrupt end to our protest.
However, the truckers are not being discouraged and they continue their demonstration in Brussels. For example, one Flemish supporter wrote on a Telegram group called Belgian Convoy, “they can’t stop us … go on and fight for your freedom. Screw this s**tty government, banned or not.” Moreover, the authorities will find that removing a thirty ton truck will be more difficult than an inflatable bulldozer.
So now all eyes turn to Brussels for the Valentine’s Day protest. Based on past experiences with the Belgian authorities, I know that love won’t be there. Nobody knows where or when these protests will end. And no one can predict how they will impact the French presidential race. But Macron’s subdued response, which was devoid of his usual swagger, shows that he needs the protests to end as quickly as possible and that he cannot afford an escalation. These protests could disrupt the daily lives of citizens in major cities and cause serious problems for politicians and authorities. Only time will reveal if anyone really listens, which we’ll find out in April when the French vote.
Statements, opinions and views expressed in this column do not reflect those of RT.