LISBON — France’s prototype gilet jaune was, reportedly, a BMW-loving Portuguese bricklayer called Leandro Nogueira whose Facebook rage against reduced speed limits ignited traffic-disrupting demonstrations around his home in rural Dordogne.
After escalating into a nationwide revolt against the French government, the Yellow Jackets headed to Nogueira’s homeland Friday with plans for a nationwide day of action under the slogan “Vamos Parar Portugal” (Let’s bring Portugal to a halt).
Their plans for street protests and highway blockages were the most ambitious of a series of copycat protests around Europe in the wake of the prolonged French unrest.
In the end, however, the Portuguese edition was a flop, suggesting the Yellow Jacket revolt may have peaked. Rather than the 10,000 plus expected by organizers, only a few dozen protesters donned high-visibility vests for largely symbolic protests in cities around Portugal.
Heavily outnumbered by police, they briefly slowed traffic in a number of places, notably the northern cities of Braga and Porto and at a roundabout in central Lisbon.
In the capital, about 200 protesters showed up. Although there were three arrests, the demonstrations were mostly peaceful.
“In a democracy, it’s only natural that not everybody is going to be happy,” a relieved Prime Minister António Costa told reporters. “This is something normal, there’s no reason for alarmism.”
Although violent Yellow Jackets protests spilled over into Belgium, most attempts to muster similar anti-establishment demos have fallen flat.
Only a few hundred responded to calls for protests in Germany and the Netherlands. Just a handful of Brexiteers donning high-visibility vests showed up to disrupt traffic outside parliament in London last week.
“It’s very hard to see the gilets jaunes experiment replicated elsewhere. It’s a very French story,” said Philippe Marlière, professor in French and European politics at University College London.
However, he added, the gripes infuriating the French do cut across borders. “The issues which are being debated, which explain the current uprising in France, are issues which people across Europe are facing: poverty, questions of minimum wages, the state of public services. You find that everywhere.”
In Portugal, a confusing array of social media pages were behind the protest calls. One of the most prominent boasted over 12,000 followers. Supporters posted diverse objectives: from scrapping highway tolls and cutting taxes to revolutionary insurrection.
They had no backing from trade unions or leading far-left parties. “Instead of demanding progress and social justice, they are supporting extreme-right positions aimed at societal and civilizational regression,” Arménio Carlos, general secretary of the biggest labor union and a Communist Party central committee member, told TSF radio.
Almost alone in Europe, Portugal has no significant far-right party. Still, small ultranationalist groups joined Friday’s protests. One Yellow Jacket Facebook group only recently changed its name from “Portugal First — No to Refugees.”
Following the violence in France, authorities took the coletes amarelos seriously. Police leave was canceled, and 20,000 officers placed on alert. Politicians appealed for calm.
“Indignation and protest must be expressed peacefully,” President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa told reporters Tuesday. “Peaceful demonstrations are a Portuguese trademark, the violence we see in other countries is something different.”
Portugal doesn’t lack for discontent. Schools, hospitals, railways, prisons, fire services and docks are some of the sectors facing pre-Christmas disruption as striking workers demand more rewards from an economic recovery that followed years of austerity-era hardship.
Yet, after three years of growth and falling unemployment, the minority Socialist government — and the two radical-left parties that prop it up — enjoy healthy poll ratings.
Over 70 percent of voters say Prime Minister António Costa’s administration met or exceeded their expectations, according to an Aximage poll published in Portuguese newspapers this week.
‘It worked for Trump …’
However, the Aximage survey also raised doubts over Portugal’s immunity to far-right populism ahead of elections scheduled for October. It indicated 27 percent might vote for a new party that’s tough on corruption and illegal immigration, should one emerge.
Although many of Portugal’s Yellow Jackets reject accusations of far-right influence, there are fears their anti-system rhetoric gives credence to populist narratives that have succeeded elsewhere.
“This is a far-right operation,” Francisco Louçã, a founder of the Left Bloc party, told the SIC television network. “They are using social media to whip up aggressive politicization in far-right terms. This is something that worked for Trump, it worked for Bolsonaro, it worked for Salvini … we’ll see how it works in Portugal.”
Europe’s authoritarian leaders and their tame media have jumped on Yellow Jacket strife as symptomatic of the sorry state of liberal Europe. That may be backfiring.
Polish farmers in high-visibility vests used tractors to block a highway into Warsaw; cost-of-living protesters in Turkey this week referenced the Yellow Jackets, despite President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s warning that attempts to replicate Gallic unrest would “pay a heavy price.”
In Hungary, unprecedented demonstrations against the government of Viktor Orbán have brought comparisons with the gilets jaunes as workers angered by new labor laws unite with pro-democracy campaigners.
“Social dissatisfaction means political dissatisfaction. Although the spark was this amendment of the labor code, at its core this is definitely an anti-regime protest,” said Daniel Hegedus, a Central Europe expert at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.
“When protests due to social issues and protests due to the lack of democracy unite, it can be a very powerful challenge for these kinds of illiberal regimes.”
This article has been updated.