Pin It
Gilets Jaunes Protests in France, 2018Via Wikimedia Commons

Why are the French so good at protesting?

Across the Channel, protest is seen as an integral part of public life – and it actually works

Nobody protests like the French. Stagnant wages? Smash up a bank. Elitist education policies? Burn some cars. Complacent royal family? Revolution!

Just yesterday, French took to the streets to protest President Emmanuel Macron forcing through an unpopular policy change which raises the pension age from 62 to 64. The move was undemocratic, with Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne invoking article 49:3 of the French constitution – a power which enables the government to avoid a vote in the Assembly. Following the decision, thousands of people flooded out onto the streets of Paris and other French cities to protest, singing the national anthem, waving flares, and bearing trade union flags.

The French are no strangers to protesting. Back in October, too, the inflation rate stood at 5.5 per cent in France – basically half of what it was in the UK. It was lower, too, than the rate in other countries across Europe (10 per cent in Germany and 8.9 per cent in Italy). And yet thousands of people – including Nobel literature prize girlie Annie Ernaux – took to the streets in Paris to protest against the soaring cost of living.

Meanwhile, here in our sad little country, the inflation rate stood at 10.1 per cent in October 2022 – a 40-year-high – and the mainstream media dished out energy-saving tips from people with log burners while daytime TV offered viewers the chance to win money to cover their bills. As per, a systemic issue was treated as an individual failing and the root causes obfuscated, precluding any chance of the people coming together to hold the government to account.

Protest is deeply embedded in French culture. Back in the mediaeval and early modern period, Europeans would participate in folk rituals called ‘charivari’, where local communities would publicly humiliate people accused of moral offences by singing mocking songs and banging pots and pans outside their houses. In France, charivaris grew increasingly political over time, with the houses of unpopular politicians and officials often targeted.

Since then, protest has become an integral facet of French public life. “We can explain this ‘tradition’ by [looking at] the history of France: the French Revolution, the commune of Paris 1871,” Alexis Poyard, a French youth activist tells Dazed. “In France, we protest whenever we are sad or when we are angry.”

“In France, we protest whenever we are sad or when we are angry” – Alexis Poyard

“Conservatives believe social movements and protests divide us, but actually, it’s the opposite, at least for popular demonstrations. The gilets jaunes protests, for example, wanted to recreate that social link between people,” he continues. “French democracy was built on a model in which voting is not the only means of popular expression. A demonstration expresses dissatisfaction with government policy.”

“And it works.” This much is clear: in May 1968, a brutal police crackdown on student protestors triggered a general strike and mass revolt which led to President Charles de Gaulle fleeing the country; there was a wave of huge general strikes in 1995, leading to an increase in the minimum wage; the gilet jaunes (named after their ‘uniform’ of high-vis jackets) halted Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to introduce a carbon tax which would disproportionately impact the poor.

Research also backs up that, broadly speaking, protests – particularly radical protests – are effective. ‘The radical flank effect’ describes a phenomenon where radical factions of political movements help to increase support for more moderate factions over time. For example, 63 per cent of Americans had an unfavourable view of Martin Luther King Jr in 1966; in 2011, 94 per cent took a favourable view. Similarly, although the media have derided Extinction Rebellion, concern for the environment has shot up since their high-profile protests in 2019.

Some commentators have quipped that it doesn’t make sense for the French to essentially be on stand-by for protest at all times, when they have things so good in comparison to everyone else. But this is exactly why things are better in France – because they see the power in collective action and demand change. The French don’t wear their suffering like a badge of honour as is the custom in England. Liz Truss did nothing but tank the economy and humiliate the country on the world stage in her 44-day premiership, but I doubt she ever worried about an angry mob turning up at Downing Street, baying for her blood. If Macron was in her shoes? He’d probably be expecting la guillotine, tout suite.

But it is difficult: we have to acknowledge that protesting is a privilege. Home Office data has shown that Black people are five times more likely to be subjected to the use of force by police than white people in England and Wales, and seven times more likely to be subjected to tasers. Plus, the Public Order Bill is seeking to give police greater powers to crack down on “guerilla” protest tactics, as well as greater stop and search powers to prevent disruptive protests. Police brutality is something Alexis has experienced in France, too: “In Paris, last Sunday, comrades of mine were surrounded by police officers, who threw tear gas at them for no reason.”

“Sadly, repression works,” Zeynep Tufekci wrote in The Atlantic in 2020. “No matter how brave the protesters may be, a state often has a lot more capacity to inflict costs than ordinary protesters have to withstand them.” But ‘power’ isn’t just about a government being able to do whatever they want. “Legitimacy, not repression, is the bedrock of resilient power. Losing legitimacy is the most important threat to authorities, especially in democracies, because authorities can do only so much for so long to hold on to power under such conditions,” Tufekci continues.

In any case, perhaps the tide is turning in the UK, with young people increasingly politically engaged. Global data from public relations and research firm Edelman shows 70 per cent of Gen Z are involved in a social or political cause, and nearly a third have been to a protest before. Notably, according to a ComRes poll commissioned by the Independent, almost a third of all Brits believe violent disorder is appropriate given the current circumstances – among 18- to 24-year-olds, this rises to 49 per cent. There have been huge turnouts at protests against the cost of living crisis across the country too. There’s hope for us yet – as Alexis says: “to protest is a way to show you did not surrender, that you still believe another world is possible.”