Ingeborg van Teeseling

The Paris Example: Can Violent Protest Bring Change Elsewhere?

With Macron buckling to the demands of the Paris protesters, it’s easy to assume that violent protest is the best avenue toward progress. But will it work outside of France?


For a couple of weeks, we have been regaled with pictures of people in yellow vests under the lead-gray sky of Paris. They have been mostly engaged in burning cars, smashing statues, looting and torching shops. There were a lot of them: at the high point, a few days ago, more than 100,000. It was an interesting sight: fascists together with environmentalists, feminists side by side with white supremacists. Trump loved it, too; in one of his Twitter-itches he gloated: “The Paris Agreement isn’t working so well for Paris. Protest and riots all over France.” As usual, he was wrong. There were only five people or so demonstrating outside of the French capital. But nevertheless: although it looked good under the Christmas light at the Champs-Élysées, you could be forgiven to watch the events on television and wonder: WTF?

First the facts: nature and the climate aren’t doing so well. Last week, our favorite old person, David Attenborough, told the bickering powers-that-be in Poland that if they didn’t do something to prevent the earth from falling apart, civilization would collapse first. Although they smiled at him like you do at a cuddly wombat, they ignored him, of course. But when they got back home, some elected officials (not ours) tried at least something, although it was piecemeal. Amongst them was Emmanuel Macron, the husband of the real President of France, who decided to establish an eco-tax on fuel and offer his fellow citizens money if they elected to switch to solar and renewables, including electric cars. Shame! Kill! How dare he!

Anyway, that is how it started: with some spoiled brats protesting against the fact that they couldn’t drive their cars for ten cents anymore. Behind that anger was something else, of course. And you can see it clearly when you watch the yellow vests on the streets now. Listen to what they say they want: freedom, justice, no more authority, action! Not something real, something tangible, something that Macron can, in fact, offer them. That wouldn’t be much fun. Then the protests would be over, and then what? It is cold this time of year in Europe, and gray, and a tad boring. Nothing to do, really, and the good thing about demonstrating is that it raises your blood, it is a communal thing, and it combines two of the loveliest things on the planet: singing and a free hit. What’s not to like? So I predict that, until Christmas, the assorted “we, the people” will be on the streets of Paris. Or maybe until Macron calls elections, whichever comes first.

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I don’t think the latter will happen. Like most French, Macron is a student of history. So he knows that his country’s citizens love nothing more than a good, bloody battle. That it is, in fact, part of their identity. Listen to their national anthem: “Do you hear, in the countryside / The roar of those ferocious soldiers? / They’re coming right into your arms / To cut the throats of your sons.” Lovely, isn’t it? No girt by sea or boundless plains to share here. This little ditty was first sung at another uprising they had in Paris, in 1789. The French Revolution was, of course, a bit of a rip-off, seeing that the American one was first. But that one had been sponsored by the French, so in a way they co-own that. And that is my point: the French love a good revolt. And this one was a ripper: they overthrew the monarchy, killed between 20,000 and 40,000 at the guillotine and in the streets, and locked up hundreds of thousands. In the end, they had little to show for it: the revolution had eaten its children, as it usually does, and instead of the king they got Napoleon, an even bigger potentate than Louis XIV had been. But then again: who cares? It had been fun, and for the rest of history they could say that real Enlightenment had started in Paris. Which, of course, it hadn’t. Although every crowned head in the world was now frightened of knives, so that, I guess, was a positive.

I will spare you most of the other violent street parties Paris has had in the past, with one exception. In May 1968 students and workers thought it was a good time to go outside and smell the roses. There were no particular gripes then either. They were against capitalism and the power of the state and tradition. It was nice and vague, but that was half the joy. Because nobody could meet a demand that wasn’t made (or negotiate with non-existing leaders, also something 1968 has in common with now) the protests could grow and grow. At its height, 11 million people were on strike, there were running battles with the police, and then-president De Gaulle had to temporarily flee the country (to Germany, which was, of course, hilarious). When he got back, he was a bit shaken and called for elections. And what do you think happened? They brought him back even stronger than before. Half of France, that had just been having a party outside, voted for the man they had claimed to hate. Those 1968 protests brought some gorgeous banners, though: “Be realistic, ask the impossible.” And my particular favorite: “Under the sidewalk is the beach.”

That’s what I am saying: you have to admire the French. They do rioting like nobody else.


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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