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Aux barricades! France’s long history of revolt

AFP file picture | Hundreds of people have been injured and four people have been killed in the Yellow Vest protests so far

The French are no strangers to taking to the streets. The burgeoning "Yellow Vest" movement, which has vowed to cause widespread disruption for a fifth consecutive Saturday, echoes other rebellions that have brought previous French leaders to heel.

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During the 1789 Revolution that began with the storming of the Bastille, French workers rioted over taxes, economic inequality and perceptions that the country’s rulers were out of touch.

And it seems President Emmanuel Macron has ignited this same spark, rekindling the French citizenry’s rebellious tendencies. While democracy has replaced the monarchy in France, the tradition of the masses taking their anger against perceived inequality onto the streets of Paris remains much the same.

Last weekend Yellow Vest protesters were responsible for Paris’s worst rioting in decades, looting and torching cars in plush neighbourhoods near the Champs-Élysées and graffitiing “Macron=Louis 16” and “King Macron”. Four people have been killed and hundreds have been injured in the protests.

Macron, a former Rothschild banker whom critics have long accused of being a “friend of the rich”, stoked popular anger for doing away with a wealth tax last year and proposing a rise in fuel taxes that campaigners say will hurt the poorest.

“We have all kinds of different social categories that have united under what we call ‘The People’, which has deep roots in French history,” sociologist Michel Fize told FRANCE 24 on the eve of new protests. “It’s become a very inclusive movement.”

He noted that unions representing students, farmers and truck drivers have recently joined the struggle.

“There’s reason to believe that other groups will join in too, because all social categories are affected by modern-day social injustice,” Fize said.

And the Yellow Vests have widespread backing. In a survey conducted by the Elabe institute for broadcaster BFMTV earlier this week, 46 percent of the French say they “support” them while 26 percent “sympathise” with their cause.

>> On France24.com: Who are the 'Yellow Vest' protesters?

Speaking directly to power

On Wednesday the French president caved. Macron abandoned the fuel-tax hike, but not before his image as an unshakeable leader was severely damaged.

“If people compare Macron to Louis XVI, it’s a warning that he has hasn’t learned the lesson of history," sociologist Michel Wieviorka told the Associated Press. "They don’t literally want his head, but it’s a strong message that they don’t feel listened to."

The concessions haven’t appeased the protesters, who said it was too little too late. With wages stagnant, unemployment above 9 percent and growing frustration at France’s taxes, which are among the highest in Europe, some Yellow Vests now want to topple the government.

>> Reporters: What do France's 'Yellow Vest' protesters want?

Protest may be such a recurrent part of French history simply because it has often succeeded. Paris’s very design was intended to thwart mass protest after the 19th-century revolutions that toppled monarchies.

“The founding moment of French political history was the Revolution. Since then, French people speak directly to power through protest. Although not necessarily in such a bloody way,” Wieviorka said.

An unidentified Yellow Vest protester in the southwestern Bouches du Rhône region also touched on the historic roots of France’s protest tradition when speaking to national broadcaster France 2 on Friday.

“It’s a good revolution. It needs to be peaceful, and it needs to be successful. But it must not become another 1789,” he said.

Strong tradition in France

Fifty years ago, students at Sorbonne University erected barricades in a challenge to the status quo. The violence that authorities used to suppress the protesters brought French workers onto the streets, and the swelling 1968 movement that eventually numbered 9 million people brought France to its knees.

The uprising led to a 35 percent rise in the minimum wage and salary increases of 10 percent. But it undermined the legitimacy of president Charles de Gaulle, who stood down the following year.

Mass demonstrations also forced the French government to ditch plans to reform the university selection process in 1986, the reform of public transport workers’ pensions in 1995 and the introduction of a lower wage scale for recent university graduates in 2006.

“There is indeed a stronger culture of taking to the streets to protest in France than in many other countries. It’s due to our political history,” French Sociologist Laurent Mucchielli told FRANCE 24.

“It’s the counterparty to the way we are governed," he continued. "In the past we were ruled by an absolute monarchy and today by a presidential regime. When there is no citizen participation, or citizens aren’t consulted [on important issues], with someone always making decisions for them, you come to the point where the only way to react is to protest.”

The memory of the 1830 and 1848 revolutions (which led to the creation of France's Second Republic) as well as other, smaller uprisings are indelibly printed on the French psyche.

The tumult following the 1830 revolution was immortalised in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” a classic of French literature and one of the most famous musicals of all time, which culminates in a confrontation on the barricades during the 1832 Paris Uprising.

In later decades, fearing such protests could threaten his grip on power, Napoleon III enlisted the help of Baron Haussmann to re-plan the notoriously narrow streets of Paris into wide, easily accessibly boulevards starting in 1853 – giving birth to the wide avenues of the modern French capital. It was thought this would stop the building of barricades that hindered soldiers from restoring order.

But the country’s long tradition of protest has stubbornly outlasted all attempts to stymie it, as the Yellow Vest protesters who are still erecting barricades have demonstrated.

For more information:

  • For the latest information on how the protests may disrupt traffic to and from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle and Orly international airports, follow @ParisAeroport for live updates, or check their website here.
  • For information on how transport lines in Paris will be affected, click here for buses, here for trains and get live updates on metro lines here. Click this link for the latest information on which metro stations are open.
  • The City of Paris has also listed the different tourist attractions, shops, parks and markets that will be closed in Paris on Saturday (in French only) here.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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