Slouching towards Brussels 🚛

by Rona Lorimer

Two years of magical thinking

When the convoys came to Paris, people around me wondered whether there would be a giletsjaunisation of the Ottawa convoys. I read that the liberal residents of Ottawa treated the convoys with a classist contempt that reminded me of initial reactions by the Left in France to the gilets jaunes:

Most of the [counter protesters’] signs were either calling for more police, complaining about inconveniences like sound and traffic, or making fun of the demonstrators for being unvaccinated and/or stupid. “Honk if you failed civics,” “Self-driving trucks can’t spread covid,” “Ottawa police act now,” “Make Ottawa boring again.”

The article also made clear that, while the convoys were full of wild magical thinking, that people had always thought such things, and that the pandemic and the measures against it had amplified this:

People are always going to believe things that are false. Conspiracy theories are annoying as hell but they provide easy answers and are super compelling. Nobody is going to feel compelled by being called an idiot. We need better ways to counter misinformation than petty bullying and overstated blame.

In France, the gilets jaunes marked a clear occasion in recent history when an unorthodox protest involving a new demographic of protesters had surprised journalists, members of the government, the police, the organised Left, and the disorganised Left. At first, the organised and intellectual Left said it was fascist, full of conspiracy theories about finance, and petit bourgeois. It was a non-union, extra-workplace struggle involving to a large degree, small business owners with anti-tax demands, who came mostly from the provinces, and thus not from the kind of place the Left usually rummages around in when they are trying to find the universal subject. It brought working and lower middle class peoples’ demands directly into the metropole in the form of burning cars, forklifts, and hundreds of toll booths sacked along the way. The initial opposition to a higher tax on petrol expanded to include more broadly social demands. People occupied roundabouts and had transformative experiences. As police violence increased against the innovative tactics of the gilets jaunes, and they progressively lost hands, eyes and jawbones to flashballs, the movement voiced important concerns about police violence. In the space of a few weeks the gilets jaunes had Macron scrambling after them trying to negotiate, something ongoing union movements hadn’t seen in years.

The gilets jaunes was a confusing mess of different identities, and from the beginning there were a few different tendencies that emerged with respect to how to relate to them. Some could be called a “movementist tendency”: these accept that the working class, when it arrives, is impure, dirty, and undesirable, but encourages its destructive and constructive impulses nonetheless. An example of this might be the weekly online magazine lundi.am, who decided to publish anything and everything on the gilets jaunes—irrespective of who it was by—with the aim of accommodating its impure and messy character, as well as building and encouraging its potent drive forward. Another tendency, subtly different as it still involved a degree of acceptance of the “impure character,” could be called an interventionist one: drawing on the heterogeneous character of the gilets jaunes and the fact that it was focused initially around a single issue, and that “anyone” could wear the gilet. These would say: get involved to oust the fascists. Nantes Révoltée, and antifascist, antiracist, queer and workerist groups, such as the Comité Adama, CLAQ, Antifa Paris Banlieue, encouraged people to go along to make sure an anti-fascist tendency was represented. Groups such as the Platform for Militant Enquiry (PEM) went to Rungis food depot every weekend to make links with and organise the logistics workers there. Many people, who were not part of these initial tendencies, regret having written the gilets jaunes off, and the gilets jaunes became a weekly national treasure. Some drew the lesson that they should get involved in movements even when “fascists” were present, whether that takes a movementist or interventionist form, whilst others just raise their hands, palms up, and say: “the situation could surprise you.”

Therefore, faced with the confusing culture war over Covid measures, which involves making an identity—ranging from Agamben to zero-Covid—because we are implored to make individual decisions in a situation which we cannot control. The tendencies I note above could also be said to have mapped onto the way people related to the ‘confusion’ of the anti-health and then vaccine passport movement, which has been building as a street mobilisation since the health/sanitary pass was instituted in summer 2021. People have already made speculations about the anti-pass movement being a continuation of gilets jaunes. You can also see the continuation in the movementist current in those who embraced the anti-pass movement because it was confusing and therefore might be like the gilets jaunes; while the interventionist one was represented by calls to the Left parties to take a position on the mandate, and of course those who had been humiliated by writing off the gilets jaunes a first time were more prepared the second time around.

On the confusion, which it should be said, reflects the confusion from above. First of all, people were scared. Macron famously introduced the first Covid measures in the same state of emergency with which he forcibly passed the long opposed pension reforms. He then closed the bars and carried on with the local elections—two days later announcing one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. People spent six weeks staying home and filling out forms to be able to go outside. The forms were like writing lines at school: “I the undersigned, promise I feel sufficiently guilty about going outside and accept that Covid is a problem because of me taking a walk outside rather than the depletion of the public health system and the failure of the government…”. Not to mention that the confinement of one part of society was dependent on another part going to work.

Then Macron suddenly opened everything up in June 2020 to kick start the economy and the tourist season. November 2020 we were back inside, the curve peaking again. Next, a punishing (infantilising, and incomprehensible) curfew at 8pm, 7pm, 6pm. Metros full of passengers, people at work, queues at supermarkets. Rule breaking was generalised in the form of edited pdf justifications, clandestine bars. I had fake forms that I photocopied each month that said I was an actress. We internalised the pandemic in the sense that we always needed a good enough reason to be somewhere, it had to be corroborated, and finally, seeing as the state was irresponsible, we also had to figure out if we were really putting someone at risk. Most people my age in Paris live in tiny studio apartments. I was teaching on Zoom during the day and had to convince myself that my studio apartment was not a classroom, now a place to eat, now a bedroom. My teaching finished at 6pm and then I was confined indoors. I think that the measures were untenable and badly thought out in terms of mental health. The confinements and curfews were unevenly dished out — that’s to say, the same rule for everyone irrespective of your living conditions or size of your apartment — and unevenly policed—the police gave out more fines (135 euros for the first offence, 1000 for the second, six month suspended sentence for the third) in the racialised banlieues, sparking riots and unrest. The cancelling of everything was also unequally experienced despite France’s furlough package. Those who could not work because their workplace was shuttered, and their work couldn’t be done online received 80% of their wages, an invisibilisation of the precarisation of the population. However, over 70% of French people work in some form of service: put that way, one can see that 70% of people would have further impoverished by 20%. These partial wages were paid for by the state as these sectors became “zombie enterprises.”

We had the curfew and masks outside until June 21, 2021, when the government just had to get rid of them because it was too hot, people were fainting and getting heatstroke, and besides it was the beginning of the lucrative tourist period. The vaccine campaign began in February of that year. France was at first well behind countries like Germany and the UK, where the politicians expounded that taking the vaccine would be a good way to finally be done with all the other measures. I couldn’t wait to take it. As well as thinking it was probably a good idea I also cynically suspected that a vaccine passport might be instated and I wanted to be able to cross borders easily. It was hard to get—you had to go on an online platform called vitemadose and find “chronodoses,” or surplus doses on the same day. I got my first jab in a gymnasium far out in the suburbs next to the Marne river, and my second in the Marseille military hospital by a woman in camouflage cargo pants, amidst sandbags. Elsewhere, you could get vaxxed by firemen.

There were initial mobilisations against the possible vaccine passport in the summer in which vaccine centres were tagged with swastikas and anti vaxxers wore the yellow star. It was therefore understood to be a movement with fascists in it. As the summer drew on, the “sanitary passport” was put in place. Bars and all public places would now have to check a QR code—either that of an antigen covid test, or proof of vaccination. For some jobs you would need to have a health pass, like in Italy. However, while clients of a bar had to have a health pass, the waitress didn’t. Why? Because Macron didn’t want people to be off work sick (and receiving sick pay). He additionally reduced the amount of paid time off work. As it was already clear that people could catch and transmit the virus with the vaccine, it all began to feel absurd and punitive. In October or so, they changed the law so that those who were vaccinated could have free tests, and those who weren’t would have to pay 25€. An “incentive.” People who were already perhaps afraid of the virus, afraid or hesitant of vaccination, felt blackmailed. In January, the government changed it from a “sanitary” to a “vaccine” passport and this was written into the constitution. Macron said that he would “emmerder les non vaccinés” (screw the unvaccinated). The experts of the WHO lamented this punitive and short-sighted public health policy, saying that it would alienate the unvaccinated and discourage vaccination. Further to this it stated that those falling the most ill and dying of Covid were mainly unvaccinated, and it was questioned publicly—by the health minister!—whether those unvaccinated should have access to the public health system.

Of course any anti-pass movement, in view of this general state of confusion, fear, disease, death, bad and good management, would contain different critiques of the health and vaccine passes. Some focused on biopolitics, surveillance, and the possible threat to peoples’ freedom. That allowing all social activity to be traced and surveilled could be manipulated for other forms of control. In Denmark, for example, the health pass was used to keep people with criminal records out of bars. Other critiques were driven by fear of the vaccine, or the idea that it didn’t stop the virus anyway. Some said the government policy was counterproductive and would cause more confusion and vilify people. I think everyone I know was against the pass, and that involved a whole spectrum of anti- and pro-vaccine people.

I went to anti-vax marches. They seemed to be empty of the broader, more utopian content of the gilets jaunes, although people remarked that maybe they “looked like” the same demographic. I wonder what that means? A CGT march would “look like” the gilets jaunes, were you to take away the banners, and the gilets jaunes might “look like” the CGT if you took their jackets off and put some banners in their hands. On the one hand, interventionist or movementists had tried to dissolve themselves into the gilets jaunes, taking it as a vest that fits all.” Yet you could overhear people in Paris identifying the presence of gilets jaunes—even when those people are not wearing the vest—which suggests that there are times when everyone is a Yellow Vest, and other times when the gilets jaunes are someone else, and that that difference is experienced as visible class markers. It suggests a not altogether perfect integration into the gilets jaunes, and is a thing that shifts.

In addition to the absence of comparable violence in the anti-vax marches, it was also notable that there seemed to be no topos. Something significant about the gilets jaunes was the way that it gave significance to symbols which were previously the symbolic property of the Right, such as the Champs Élysées, that they made Paris into a dérive, and adding to that, the obvious example of the roundabout which moved away from the workplace. Here instead the demonstrations cried empty chants of “freedom” in front of the Louvre. Because France successfully kept the vaccine passport in the sphere of consumption, with only a few types of jobs requiring it, practical opposition to the passport was restricted to a kind of consumer boycott1. My impression was in all the months leading up to the convoys, that the anti-health pass demands never quite managed to materialise into anything more concrete—demands for a better health system, or for example that no one should suffer curfew or confinement in terrible cramped conditions.

The Convoy of Liberty: Part 1 - Paris Journal

However, when it was announced that there would be convoys in France, we began to hear the kinds of broader social demands made during the gilets jaunes, similar to those collated at the “Assembly of assemblies” at Commercy. The press release that called for a “Convoy of Liberty” to Paris and Brussels talked not only about the vaccine pass and the curfews, but also spoke of restricted buying power, the price of basic necessities, as well as the price of gas. They even demanded free and universal access to health and culture. Apart from reference to the gilets jaunes, the other obvious reference was Mad Max: Fury Road, which became the way we talked about it.

The days before, we looked at a map which indicated the position of cars and trucks coming up from all over France, of possible places to stay on the way, and of pit stops where people could take breaks, share food etcetera. This article is an account by people who travelled up to Paris with the convoys. As they say:

Several long days on the road, hours of confusing discussions, locals opening their homes - or their [old peoples’] dance halls! - and welcoming the convoy with banquets of shopping bags in car parks, to end up going up and down the Champs-Elysées, on a Saturday afternoon, in the teargas and getting lost in Brussels at the end of the race. All of this is of course reminiscent of the early days of the gilets jaunes, but after two years of pandemic, the political landscape has been turned upside down and these few days have thrown it in our faces. (my emphasis)

It became clear during the evening before the demonstration planned in Paris, that the convoys wouldn’t make it into the city centre. People wondered if they would try and block the ring road, the péripherique, but actually the police stopped and redirected them as early as Orleans. Some limped off to sleep in places like Fontainbleau, a forest outside of Paris, in the hopes of coming up to Paris the next day. In the morning, twitter showed videos of tanks (blindées) put in place on the Champs Élysées and at the ports of Paris. There were also huge traffic jams around Porte Maillot. Was the blockade working? No, people were just getting huge fines. Spectators, such as I, wanted to find out where to go and observe, and tried to use knowledge garnered in the gilets jaunes. We are hanging out all morning trying to follow information on twitter, ready to jump onto bicycles and go there. For example, Porte Maillot and Porte Champerret are gilets jaunes turf, so are the Champs Élysées.

Mélenchon had publicly supported the convoys, but most official support came from extreme right politicians such as Philippot, an ex FN deputy aiming to run for president, who had set a meeting point at Denfert Rochereau. One of the more visible left wing gilets jaunes, Rodriguez, who lost an eye in 2019, had called for a demonstration starting out from Place d’Italie. In conversations I had about which rendezvous to go to, there seemed to be a bit of confusion about the way things had been recoded. On the one hand, don’t go to Philippot’s meeting, because it’s fascist. But perhaps that was the ‘authentic’ meeting point? For those movementists seeking authenticity, Rodriguez, a gilet jaune, had suddenly become a kind of outmoded Leftist, the CGT of the day. On the Champs Élysées, nothing was happening, a scattering of people who might be part of the convoys took pictures of the Arche de Triomphe, tears in their eyes. Tanks bordered the roundabout that the Arch stands on. The ambience was strange, or perhaps I was projecting one on to its absence. I cycled over toward Place d’Italie, and while I was on the underpass near to where Lady Diana was killed (assassinated?) under the Louvre, a convoy managed to make it on to the Champs Élysées.

A “convoy”—that’s to say a dozen or so cars and a long haul truck without its trailer attached—had made it on to the Champs and was parked there, blocking the rest of the traffic. The cars, adorned with banners which mainly focused on the vaccination of children, had their doors open and were pretending to be broken down. Confused spectators and people there for the protest looked on from the side. An unassuming cloud of tear gas floated across the Dior shopfront. Over the course of the next few hours police tried to disengage the convoy, using tow trucks. More people eventually made it up to the Champs from Place d’Italie, where the march got to be quite big. A crowd movement briefly pushed a small gaggle of a few hundred over to Boulevard Haussmann, others followed and pushed back a tow truck that was towing the truck. This carried on fairly calmly for the rest of the afternoon. It seemed that something was going on at the Tuileries. We walked down there and bumped into some friends who’d travelled up with the convoys from Toulouse, who seemed rather frazzled.

They explained the near religious experience they’d had, coming up in a bus. For several days they’d seen great support across the whole of France. Every roundabout they passed was filled with gilets jaunes, waving flags and scarves and cheering them on, and the bus driver honked enthusiastically each time so it was also impossible to sleep. At each pit stop they were met by people who had brought food and water for them. In Limoges, someone opened up a “dancing,” which means an old folks’ ballroom for them to sleep in. In other towns, anti-vax mayors had opened up gymnasiums and people had also provided space in their homes to sleep in. The convoy moved very slowly because there were so many vehicles. They were swept up in the zeal of it, they really felt they were about to “take” Paris. On arrival, on the Champs, they were met with a mainly tourist presence and realised the Parisians didn’t really know they were coming. Another thing that slightly dampened this quasi religious experience was that on the bus, after many conversations with the other passengers, this group had suddenly asked each other “hang on, have you had a single conversation that wasn’t about the vaccine? Have you had a single conversation that didn’t involve a totally zany conspiracy theory?” What kinds of conspiracy theories? All kinds, not even necessarily things relating to the vaccine, including ones about famous almost first rate athletes dropping dead worldwide and the cause of death being misreported. And the thing is, said one of them, “they keep saying, ‘there’s a global genocide being caused by the vaccine, I really hope I’m wrong,’ but of course, they really hope they’re right.”

Later in the evening, there were more and more people on the Champs and rather than trying to take the road with cars, they were on foot, and taking space. There was tear gas, there were momentary street occupations, and there were chasings down alleyways by hundreds of BRAV, the motorbike mounted, white helmeted wing of the police. Their silhouettes zipped past people eating calmly in expensive restaurants. In the confusion, a young man was screaming at the crowd about the “gains” of ’68, by which he meant the “security gained by the defeat of ’68,” and how they were all undemocratic and hateful and stupid. He was about 18. There were a group of gilets jaunes who were followers of Rodriguez. “We can’t lose, we aren’t allowed to lose, because we are right!” they said to each other over and over. I asked one of them about herself. “How dare he speak to me like this, I know this neighbourhood like the back of my hand. Pathetic.” She had lived in Paris since the 70s, and her first apartment was a chambre de bonne just on the other side of the Élysée. What concerned her the most was why she and her girlfriends were here: “Because of the vaccination of children, it’s really that that gets me.” It was all over by about 9pm.

The Convoy of Liberty: Part 2 Brussels

There was little trace of the convoys on the way to Brussels from Paris. We were late. We heard all kinds of confusion second hand from friends who were on the truckers tannoy platform, Zello, listening to the confused stream of disputes from the drivers. Despite the fact that there were not so many heavy goods vehicles involved in the convoys, as in Canada—because in France and the EU, fewer truckers own their own trucks—they had managed to use the radio system. Truckers here are technically self employed, like in Canada, but do not own the means necessary to work.

As I noted elsewhere, I once hitchhiked with a logistics worker who explained to me that the truck stops have been abolished, driving a heavy goods vehicle is now even more lonely than before because truckers, spending weeks away from their families and friends, are no longer able to find each other along the route for brief moments of conviviality, since a sophisticated black box tracking system demands the fastest route possible and tracks the position of the driver. Before it was more like piece-work: a deadline was given for a shipment of goods, and the rate and route remained at the drivers’ discretion. Nonetheless, the convoy were able to communicate over the tannoy, and to find each other at pit stops and carparks to have more of a conversation. The convoy had left Paris, gone to sleep the night in a parking lot near Lille, but then police had dispersed them and put them in a designated parking area to do their demonstration outside of Brussels. Many still wanted to go to Brussels, others wanted to give up and go to the European court or parliament in Strasbourg. At an overwhelming pace, because it was organised on telegram groups and Zello, people who no one had ever heard of before were being considered “leaders” and then “traitors.” A rumour circulated that the person calling to go to Strasbourg was a Freemason. It was a conspiracy within a conspiracy.

When you think about the way these arguments broke out on this platform, which as far as I can tell is a bit like Parler, it reminds you that the convoy is a form that is much less dialogical than the gilet jaune roundabout occupations. Convoys proceed in straight lines. The form of the apps used weren’t presupposed toward a discussion of tactics. The visual reference that the convoys themselves made to Mad Max: Fury Road turned out to be misleading. As one person in our car remarked, being in a car in a situation of an illegal protest is one of the weakest positions you could be in. As a driver, you have more civil responsibility than a pedestrian. You need to have identity documents with you at all times, you don’t have the right to go off route, run away or to go forward or faster than a speed limit. In nearly every situation where any problem could occur, unless the driver in front of you is at fault, you are at fault, and the situation will be taken care of by insurance, or in the courts. What is so interesting is that so many of these drivers felt such conviction that they were willing to put their private property (cars), livelihoods (if they owned their trucks), or civic responsibility, in peril. Regarding dialogue, there’s less time than on a roundabout. People are alone in their cars going forward. We heard that the pit stops and get-togethers in the car parks were truly social, and of course they had slept in ballrooms and gymnasiums together and presumably had time to talk. But ultimately the convoys are people stuck in traffic behind each other. All of these people going to Brussels to stick it to the man. And when the man doesn’t fall down?

The trace of the convoys was just signs on those large digitised boards, where they usually tell you about excessive rainfall or remind you to take regular breaks. It said “MANIFESTATION INTERDIT,” somewhere in the middle of the industrialised Belgian landscape. It takes four hours to get to Brussels from Paris, but strangely anyone you talk to thinks it takes just an hour and a half. As if the shared language of the two countries erases the border. Sometimes I think French people do not think Belgium really exists, but rather that it’s a kind of satellite, or beach hut, or weekend location.

Well, we got there far too late and everything was finished. We saw a gaggle of gilets jaunes by a shopping mall. We tried our best to cross town to make it to the European parliament. Everyone in Paris always says how cool and cheap Brussels is, but in Belgium they won’t give you tap water for free, and it has that particular quality of a Northern European place where things look expensive and hipster but aren’t actually. It was by this time, about 6pm, that it was getting dark. As we crossed the imperial/royal gardens and got to that side of town where there’s really nothing except office buildings, we could hear whoever was remaining from the convoys chanting. We neared and saw there were police protecting the parliament, although the demonstrators were perfectly peaceful. There were about 100, 150 people and they were chanting “Liberté, liberté, liberté.” A mixed crowd, sort of shabby looking.

I spoke to a woman who stood slightly apart from the crowd. She stood out to me because she was quiet and pensive, and also because she was the only black person present. She had long braids and a slight figure. I told her I was a journalist, and that in the early period of the gilets jaunes, people had speculated that they were all fascists, but that I had been to the roundabouts and interviewed people, and found that wasn’t the case. I had a hunch that it was the same here, because I’d seen promising information about concerns over the cost of living and so on, and so I wanted to find out. I asked her why she was there. She told me that it was for the vaccine, because children were being vaccinated and in France, they only required the consent of one parent. She explained her emotional distress in spiritual terms: “The devils are governing us, I am convinced they are the devil because they are splitting us apart, breaking up our families. I am divorcing my husband because he vaccinated my son. And we love each other, it’s very sad. I’ve split from my whole family. My son goes to school and has to wear a mask, I tell him, ‘No you mustn’t wear the mask,’ and he is punished. He has to write lines, and I tell him, “No you don’t have to write those lines.”

She has found a new family in the experience of struggling against the vaccine pass. “I find love in the convoys, the night always ends in dancing, we touch each other, we hug each other. We are love and the people governing us are the devils.” She tells me she’s lived through real epidemics, and this is not one. “Only the people who are vaccinated catch it, only people with preexisting conditions or who are old will die.” So should the old and vulnerable be vaccinated then? “No, no one should be vaccinated.”

Meanwhile the people I’m with were talking to a woman who caught their eye because she was well-heeled, and looked like she could be a homoeopath or an osteopath from a semi-affluent part of Paris. “This morning at one in the morning” she says “they put us in a car park to do our demonstration. We were in Auschwitz.” My friend, who can’t stop himself says, “No, it was not Auschwitz; you were able to leave.” She says, ominously and completely seriously: “This time, yes.”

We wander over to the other side of the parliament where there is a water cannon and a line of riot cops with dogs. Some alternative looking people are there in a gaggle of about a hundred and fifty, and a woman in baggy trousers is yelling, “Global genocide,” over and over a gain with a strikingly young person next to her. He looks like he might be about 19 years old. He has a perspex stretcher coiled earring in one ear, a kind of hippy. It turns out he’s from Brittany. We have a video camera so a man approaches us, thinking we are from a television channel. He starts to spin us a far fetched story in which he emphasises that he’s a tourist who’s come from somewhere near Lyon. Him and his friend came to Brussels not at all for the protests, and were immediately arrested since the protest was banned. They had nothing on their car identifying them with the convoys. He shows us his wrists, and the traces of what he says were handcuffs. He shows us a blurry photo on his phone of what he says was his arrest record. I wonder what he hopes to gain, showing that the protest was repressed but nonetheless claiming he wasn’t part of it. He says, “I’ll never come back to this country again,” and begins making vague threats toward the Brussels tourism office.

So I ask him, “What do you think of the vaccine passport?” hoping to hear something about surveillance, an attack on civil liberties, bio politics. “I am a tourist,” he emphasises. He is wearing a red raincoat and he has white hair, I suppose he’s about 50. I say, “Yes, but as a tourist, what do you think of the vaccine passport.” He launches into it, with the immunity of being a tourist: “The vaccine doesn’t work, it hasn’t had enough testing and people are becoming sick from it.” His friend who is also a “tourist” arrives and they expound a theory in which they mention: money given to Macron by the Rothschilds, which you can look up online; the involvement of the Bill Gates foundation in developing the vaccine; and a plan for a global genocide through the vaccine. They compare themselves, as anti-vaxers, to the Jews in the Second World War, excluded from parts of public life, persecuted and vilified. There has never been a moment in the history of France since then in which society was segregated—“the Algerian War,” interjects one of my team—“Ah great! I’m very happy to meet a young man who knows his history,” says the second “tourist,” and continues. I start speaking to a young man in English (he speaks Flemish, so it’s easier for him) who has a camera, and ask him what he thinks of the tourists’ speech, which I’ve become bored of and is still ongoing. “Well, I don’t really understand why they underline the private interests of the vaccine, without demanding that the vaccine technologies and research be nationalised.” Curious, I think, wondering what he’s doing here. He’s just come to take photographs; he comes from the next town.

We are tired, it is raining, and it’s difficult to talk to people without others pitching in. They are also a bit suspicious of us. So we move off a bit defeated. Every conversation has been about the vaccine, squarely, rather than about the state measures surrounding it, in contrast to what we saw of the convoys in the media beforehand—the press releases and communiqués had said things about buying power, universal access to healthcare and culture, salary discrepancies—and so we four had thought it had generalised beyond the issue of the vaccine pass, and was a kind of gilets jaunes.

We go to eat some frites, because we are in Brussels after all. Opposite the fritérie there are some people who seem to be from the convoys. One is wearing a huge French flag across his shoulders, like a cape. We decide to drop our ethical position of saying we’re journalists. We’re not particularly journalists anyway; it’s true we are also against the health pass, albeit in a different way. We ask them if they are here for the convoys, as we get some beers and wait for our frites. And no surprises, the man with the French flag responds positively. We ask him if the group came together. No, he says. In fact he came on his own; he did go through Paris but didn’t see much. Then, without much connection, he says “you know what, I drove here alone from near Lyon. On Saturday, I passed through a working class neighbourhood of Paris and I saw a muslim woman, veiled, like that.” He covers his mouth and his forehead with his hands. “And I just smiled at her and waved my French flag and I said ‘Bonjour Madame!’ And she gave me a huge smile. Like that. Because, no matter what, that I’m French and you’re Arab, we’re all in this together.” I’m not sure what this self-conscious demonstration of tolerance is supposed to show. We ask him what it is that concerns him the most. “The vaccine,” he says confidently, and proceeds to tell us the same stuff—that it hasn’t been tested enough, that it’s making people ill and even die, and then he tells us that there’s this stuff “graphene” in the vaccine. Not just that, but the presence of this monoatomic carbon form, means that we can now see who’s been vaccinated through the bluetooth function on peoples’ phones. We all have an individual code called a “mac” code if we’ve been vaccinated, and this shows up via bluetooth. The man, I note, does have a smartphone himself.

One of my crew tries a new tactic. He asks the man what his profession is. He’s the pure profile of a gilet jaune, a low ranking white collar worker in a flexible industry. He works for Chronopost but not in deliveries—in the office and the logistics that go into stocking the vans. He has a short term contract and hopes to quit one day. “Look,” says my friend, “these conspiracy theories and so on, about the vaccine, that’s not so much what worries me. I’m a teacher, I’m pretty badly paid, and you work for chronopost, and you don’t have a fixed contract. So really, what interests me is low wages and the cost of living, and the surveillance implications of the pass.” The man is not very interested in this. “Let me explain,” he says, “The vaccine contains a global genocide, it will kill off a significant part of the population.” “When?” I say. “It’s already happening,” he says. Like the first woman I spoke to, he thinks that the vaccine is depleting peoples’ natural immunity. He thinks that this is a plan from the elites because he has heard Elon Musk and Davos talking about the global population explosion. The malthusian terms in which they might speak, scares him. He thinks that the Great Reset is a plan to reduce the global population. I ask why this would be desirable. He doesn’t really have an answer. He says, “Trump would have saved us all.” I object to this and say that Trump was bad for Mexicans, for example. “Let me explain,” he says (which he says often), “if you have over fifty percent immigration you’ll destroy the national integrity of a country.” So we’ve finally arrived at the great replacement. I tell him that there isn’t a fifty percent rate of migration. He says it’s happening in Europe and that this threatens European identity. The cultures are incompatible. Immigration is good, but not too much, and immigrants must assimilate so that they don’t threaten national character. I’m struck by his particular combination of conspiracy from below (immigration) and conspiracy from above (the elites trying to kill everyone) that mean he thinks his life is in danger. It is similar to the other protesters’ employment of the figure of the Jew; on the one hand they identify with the historical figure of the Jew in World War II—they consider themselves socially persecuted—and at the same time they believe there is a Jewish conspiracy from above that puts them in this position.

He also hates Boris Johnson. There is a conspiracy theory circulating on the internet, that because Boris Johnson has dropped all the measures and encouraged people not to quarantine/self isolate when they have Covid, but seeing as he was in the Davos forum, that he has been replaced by a body double. This is a common idea in modern conspiracy theory. For example, some believe that Avril Lavigne actually died after her first album and has been replaced by a doppelganger. When Trump got covid, many believed that it was a body double or he was prerecorded speaking on television. He explains that Boris Johnson was in the photo with Karl Schwob, Davos and Bolsonaro, but that Trump was not. I marvel at the surface, image-like dimension of his concern, as if a photograph were real proof.

I ask him if he was involved in the gilets jaunes. With some disdain he says “absolutely not, I would never have been involved in something like that. I don’t care about politics.” The sense I get is also that he disapproves of the gilets jaunes’ “violence.” The convoys, although they seem to involve a similar “demographic” as the gilets jaunes, have differed in that they are extremely peaceful. Nothing happens. So what was the straw that broke the camel’s back for this man, and made him decide to demonstrate this time? “The pass,” he says.“At the beginning, I was like everyone else, I filled in the sworn declarations to go outside and I wore a mask.” But the vaccine passport was too much. He’s read a lot online and decided to come up alone. I reflect on the way he’s unable to discuss; you can suggest a topic and he’ll go off on one, but he won’t integrate anything you say into his position. Every piece of proof that goes against what he thinks is proof that someone’s trying to cover something up. “On the other hand”, he says conspiratorially “I’ve known about aliens for at least ten years.” How long has he been a conspirationniste? We ask. “You mean to say, a complotiste?” he says, outlining an important etymological/linguistic difference which I didn’t know about until the publication of the Manifeste Conspirationniste a few weeks previous. We talk about how he informs himself. Via the internet, he says. “Sometimes there’s so much information even I can’t tell what’s true or false,” he reassures us. “We’re not learning anything from each other,” he gestures to the rest of the group, “but you, you are learning from me.”

I ask him about the elections, wondering if he’ll vote Zemmour, or the far right, ex FN Philippot, who’s been trying to recuperate the convoys. He tells me the name of someone I’ve never heard of, an anti-vax Gendarme who holds his meetings outside of police stations. I tell him I think they’ll probably cancel the pass anyway to win votes. “Suspend,” he corrects me with the same gleam in his eye, waggling a finger at me, “suspend.” He and his group are leaving. Since he’s told me all of his gang think exactly the same thing as him I’m not sure who to speak to next. I see an older gentleman with a beard, in an anorak. I say “what is it that concerns you the most in all this?” “Freedom,” he says. “I think we’ve allowed ourselves to be stripped of too many freedoms over the last 50 years”.

Conspiracy theories just don’t make sense these days

We went home. As we walked off, our friend with the flag was saying to his group, “Don’t worry, I just unmatrixed those four.” The people I was with said it had been a bit “glauque”. The brief conversations we’d had with the ten of the three hundred left over from the supposedly ten thousand involved couldn’t really lead to any conclusive thoughts about the convoys. Perhaps the most hardcore stayed until the end, went all the way to Brussels. During the gilets jaunes the “most hardcore” could be said to be those who went to live on the roundabouts, but those roundabouts were extremely heterogenous. The convois echo the gilets jaunes in their (or what we can glean from the appearance of) class character, but the conversations around this mark a kind of fetishisation. First, of appearance, and also of the lower middle classes. A naive idea, put out by people of “intervention,” to “organise” these far out people seems to me even crazier than the people themselves. Regarding the generalised madness, I’m sure people believed these things before and that the pandemic has heightened the sense of loneliness, dogmatism, amplified the non dialogue. The form of the convoys as a line of cars is a non dialogical space full of people who are used to communicating alone, on forums. The thing has a religious character. I don't think these are fascists, as they are not organised, but they perhaps could be organised one day. I think some of these positions come out of real fear — fear of sickness transformed into a rejection of the vaccine, fear of the vaccine transformed into a fear of being vilified, etc. However, there is an authoritarian impulse in their conspiracy. They say they hope to be wrong about the evils they perceive, but they are zealous and hoping that they’re right. This is a kind of survival of the fittest; they want to be the community that remains at the end. These conspiracies are banal, they transform nothing: the object is to have understood better than the next person. They involve a crystallisation of the world as it already is, perhaps this more than anything constitutes their reactionary character. In this sense they are not (yet) like conspiracies which aim to eradicate an entire people by making a myth of their strength and power; they have no goal like that. There’s a theory of the conspiracy from above/below--there are both contained in the body of conspiracy in Brussels.

As I write this the pass is gone anyway, the elections are underway.