Splits among French 'yellow vests' deepen as some eye EU elections

PARIS (Reuters) - A decision by a small group of “yellow vest” protesters to contest May’s European Parliament elections has exposed deep splits within their amorphous anti-government movement about whether and how to become a more organized political force.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron stands near a man who wears a yellow vest as he attends a meeting with local residents as part of the "Great National Debate" in Bourg-de-Peage near Valence, France, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot/Pool/File Photo

Yet though they have so far drawn up a list of only 10 candidates, they could prove a disruptive force, with one opinion poll this week suggesting they could steal votes from the far-right and inadvertently help President Emmanuel Macron, whose policies triggered their original protests.

Accused by some activists of betraying the movement, Ingrid Levavasseur, who leads the new grouping’s candidate list, said on Friday she sought change through political dialogue, and she distanced herself from the movement’s violent fringe.

“We want to bring democratic debate (to French politics),” the 31-year-old assistant nurse told RMC radio. “We don’t all want to overthrow the president.”

The yellow vests, named after high-visibility vests French drivers are required to keep in their cars, began their protests in November against fuel tax hikes that Macron then scrapped.

They quickly spiraled into a broader movement against the political elite and inequality, triggering some of the capital’s worst street violence in decades.

But the movement is leaderless and split along open faultlines: between radicals who want to oust Macron and moderates who back dialogue, and between those who wish it to remain a grassroots, apolitical movement and those who see an opportunity to break into politics.

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It has been a bruising 48 hours for Levavasseur, who has emerged from obscurity to become a household name in France.

Some yellow vests who see the European Parliament as undemocratic and a waste of money have branded her a “traitor”.

“A vote for the ‘yellow vests’ is a vote for Macron,” said Eric Drouet, who heads a faction within the movement called “Angry France”.

Another rival, Benjamin Cauchy, asked Levavasseur in a terse exchange on LCI television if she supported a federal Europe or a Europe of member states.

When she replied that she had no position, Cauchy shot back: “You’re head of the list and you have no political convictions.”

Levavasseur dismissed the accusation that she was betraying the movement: “Let’s be clear, if the yellow vests don’t run (in the EU elections) someone else will in their name.”

The survey by pollster Elabe, published on Wednesday, showed the “yellow vests” winning 13 percent of the vote in France.

It also showed Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally - formerly the National Front - winning 20.5 percent of votes without a yellow vest list. This fell to 17.5 percent with a yellow vest challenge, while Macron’s centrist pro-EU party would suffer only a 1 point fall to 22.5 percent.

Le Pen, who lost to Macron in the second round of France’s 2017 presidential election, has appealed for the support of the broad yellow vest movement in the EU elections, speaking of their “healthy popular revolt” against an “incompetent president”.

Reporting by Richard Lough; Editing by Gareth Jones