Though it is unclear how many people will show up, authorities in France and Belgium are bracing for unruly arrivals. Paris police, citing risk of public disorder, said protesters would not be allowed in the capital — and warned that violators could face two years in prison, a fine of more than $5,000 and a suspended driver’s license. More than 7,000 police officers have been deployed around the French capital. Brussels, similarly, hopes to “divert” people from the city and Belgian security will keep an eye on the border.
Those preparations underscore the nervousness in Western capitals, as the world watches a small but radical group wreak havoc in the heart of a liberal democracy.
The Canadian demonstrators have used big rigs to paralyze parts of Ottawa and have shut down critical border crossings to the United States. The US Department of Homeland Security is warning that US blockades could affect the Super Bowl on Sunday and President Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1.
In Europe, as elsewhere, the movement is a mix of earnest frustration with pandemic policy and more extreme anti-establishment, even apocalyptic views.
Régine Briquez, 66, an alternative medicine practitioner from Belfort, France, has demonstrated against government-issued health passes since the summer and plans to travel to Paris, then Brussels, to protest. “What I want is my freedom back,” she said.
A news release from members of another French convoy called for reduced fuel taxes—a central concern of yellow vest protesters—along with the dissolution of parliament and the resignation of Macron’s government en masse.
In some “Freedom Convoy” channels, videos of smiling Canadian protesters are mixed with anti-vaccine propaganda, Tucker Carlson clips and antiglobalist memes.
Like the last conspiratorial import to Europe, QAnon, the “Freedom Convoy” movement offers common ground to a range of “anti-system” groups across countries, said Chine Labbe, managing editor at Newsguard, a start-up that rates the reliability of online news sources and tracks disinformation.
As they organize convoys and swap content, some groups get more radical, Labbe said. The goal: “to cast doubt on democracy itself.”
Calls for a “European Freedom Convoy” emerged in the wake of the earliest protests in Ottawa.
A digital flier posted to Twitter on Jan. 31 called on local groups to “block” each European capitalthen make their way en masse to Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, to protest “tyrannical rules.”
In the past two weeks, related groups have grown quickly. One French Facebook group for the convoy now lists more than 300,000 members. On Telegram, a messaging app popular with far-right groups, global and European convoy channels boast tens of thousands of members. Those who join are quickly directed to local channels for more than two dozen countries.
It is not clear how much of the mobilizing represents authentic, grass-roots enthusiasm. And some of the groups have recently rebranded themselves in an apparent attempt to capitalize on interest in the Canadian cause.
In late January, for instance, the moderator of a Telegram group for “unvaxxed” people in France and Belgium posted that the group and others in the network had been renamed to support the “Freedom Convoy” to “facilitate greater international cooperation and accelerate this movement.”
The siege of Ottawa has been supported and shaped by the American far-right. While researchers have yet to find clear financial links between US actors and European organizing, it is common for Europe’s far-right to adopt and adapt US content — and vice versa — and the convoy movement is no different.
Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute who has been tracking Europe’s anti-lockdown movement, particularly in Germany, said English-language material from right-wing US media and conspiracy theory sites is being forwarded into German-language groups.
“These telegram groups have a history of looking to what is happening in the US,” she said.
Unclear is whether the convoy organizing will translate into real-world action beyond the scale of what Europe has already seen.
In 2018, social inequality and outrage over a proposed fuel tax in France helped launch the “yellow vest” movement, an anti-establishment uprising that produced months of demonstrations — some violent and disruptive — in the streets of French cities and towns.
During the pandemic, some yellow vest groups joined forces with the anti-lockdown movement, a catchall that has come to include all manner of vaccine skeptics, those who oppose pandemic health measures and groups on the far right.
In recent months, large protests against vaccine mandates and passports have been held in several European capitals. On Jan. 23, tens of thousands gathered in Brussels, some clashing with police.
“The convoy is not coming out of nowhere,” said Jacob Davey from the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that studies extremism. “It’s coming out of an established anti-vax, anti-lockdown movement that has been putting down roots in different countries.”
So far, the most active site for “Freedom Convoy” follow-ups appears to be France, where several groups are already making their way to Paris, despite warnings from the police.
Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has said she “understands” the protesters’ motivations.
President Emmanuel Macron urged calm. He told newspaper Ouest France that it was important to protect the right to protest, “but we need harmony and we need a lot of collective goodwill.”
Antoine Bristielle from the Fondation Jean Jaures, a center-left French think tank, said it seemed unlikely that a Europe-wide movement would take hold, particularly because coronavirus restrictions are implemented at the national level. And many of those are being phased out.
As for France? “We need to wait for what will happen in France in the coming days,” he said.
Brick, from eastern France, said she will press on to Brussels, where she will stay with people she met online. “It’s up there where they make the decisions,” she said. “The government must stop mistaking us for idiots.”