In the post-industrial and post-national society that France is turning into, waves of protests are breaking against the wall of the new world order, which the French are powerless to change... In this society, social uprisings of a new type are gaining momentum, writes Natalia Rutkevich.
France has always been characterised by high protest activity: its history is replete with riots, oppositions, revolutions, demonstrations, strikes and youth uprisings. The most significant of them, including the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, and the youth riot of May 1968, all contributed to changes — not only in France but also throughout the world. The propensity for discussion, polemics and political debate has always been the most important state-forming mechanism in France. Many researchers associate this tendency to argue on any occasion with the peculiarities of the French language (in contrast, for example, with the German language). High protest activity, the ability to mobilise in the struggle for civil rights and social justice, and the defence of certain social ideals have often brought France to the forefront of history, making it an example to follow for many other countries.
In recent years, researchers have recorded not just an increase in protest activity, but also its galvanisation and a change in the nature of many protests that is not noticeable at first glance. During the years of the presidency of Emmanuel Macron, the unrest was virtually continuous. The most powerful movements during this series of demonstrations were the Yellow Vests (2018-2019, protests against pension reform (2019-2020, 2023), and suburban riots (June-July 2023).
The profile of the participants in these movements does not coincide in many respects; they have different impulses and different slogans, but all of them are characterised by greater or lesser violence. Even protests that start relatively calmly, like the Yellow Vests, systematically escalate into riots and vandalism. The so-called “Black Blocs” — activists of various radical ultra-left groups — regularly join the ranks of the protesters, which leads to even more violence on both sides. The brutality of the protesters invites more brutality from the forces of law and order, which adds fuel to the fire ... Radicalisation and police abuse were one of the reasons for the recent suburban riots, which began because of the murder of a young driver of Algerian origin by a police officer. This bitterness was also observed during the actions of the Yellow Vests, when several dozen people received serious injuries. In general, we can note an increase in the level of social tension in the country and an increase in violence during protests.
For a number of researchers, this increased social tension in France, protracted and/or extremely destructive social movements speak of a crisis in the French socio-political system as such, and its subsystems. Thus, the Yellow Vests movement was a powerful reaction of the impoverished middle class, protesting against marginalisation. Then the so-called “peripheral France” took to the streets, that is, those strata that suffer most from the processes of globalisation and international competition, de-industrialisation and the desolation of entire regions, where schools, medical offices, shops and post offices are closed, and where urban centres are emptying and jobs are rapidly disappearing.
The protest against the pension reform revealed a deep crisis in the country’s democratic institutions: the helplessness of the National Assembly, the blocking of parliamentary discussions by the ultra-left opposition, the government’s use of the famous Article 49.3 of the Constitution to push the pension reform while avoiding the parliament.
Finally, the most destructive of the protest movements, the summer 2023 riots, is another surge of discontent that has been brewing in the inner suburbs for more than forty years, in response to discrimination, inequality and the powerlessness of the state in solving the problems that have accumulated in these zones.
One can agree with those experts who believe that the increase in violence and tension is a reaction to the inability of the authorities to respond to the demands of society, maintain a constructive dialogue, and take some significant measures that would contribute to the institutional solution of the conflict and relieve tension. In fact, the only response of the authorities has been repression.
To a large extent, this inability is due to the radical changes that have taken place in the country since the late 1970s. By inertia, social actors continue to appeal to the nation-state, and researchers continue to analyse the processes — including social movements — in the context of French Republic ideas, but the situation has seriously changed. In the post-war years of Les Trente Glorieuses, when the political model of the Fifth Republic and France as a highly industrialised society took shape, social movements were in their nature a struggle of workers for their rights, for the choice of the collective future of the country. The state acted as an arbiter between labour and capital, between the interests of economic players and the interests of the whole society. Today, however, it no longer copes with this task.
This withering away of a number of state powers was predicted in the early 1980s by the French economist François Partin, who said that the state was losing its main role in decision-making. The state can no longer control capital, it capitulates to it and agrees to follow its logic, in particular, subordinating its actions to the criterion of profitability. It can no longer pursue voluntarist policies to achieve social goals that contradict the interests of capital. At the same time, the state remains responsible for the national and international order required by the global system of production. However, its power is no longer “political” in the sense of a democracy. All that remains is social control and repression. Partin wrote that he state must force the nation to adapt, the best it can, to the needs of global techno-economic evolution, so that the people endure all the social consequences of this uncontrolled evolution without objection . In the same years, Immanuel Wallerstein was working on his The Modern World-System, where he also discusses the loss of the regulatory function of states and the decrease in their ability to maintain order.
Actually, Emmanuel Macron formulated his task at the beginning of his first mandate in approximately the following way: “Over the past three or four decades, the French have tried to resist profound changes on a planetary scale. Politicians on the left and right promise voters to protect them from change. I want to convince them that the changes are irreversible and that we must find a way to accept them” .
In the post-industrial and post-national society that France is turning into, waves of protests are breaking against the wall of the new world order, which the French are powerless to change... In this society, social uprisings of a new type are gaining momentum. Here it is especially interesting to note the difference between the 2018-2019 Yellow Vest protests and the 2023 suburban riots.
The Yellow Vests still appealed to the Republic, to the nation, which is, in the words of Jean Jaurès, “the last property of those who have nothing left.” In their movement, one could feel nostalgia for the days of Gaullism and “French-style socialism.” The Yellow Vests mourned the withering of this model and the great past of their country.
They demanded greater democracy and the possibility of greater participation in solving the budgetary, financial, and social issues vital for the French at the local, regional, and national levels. Many of these issues have long been resolved outside of France.
The Yellow Vests protest was an “old format” movement (the average age of its participants was 45); it fizzled out without finding a political form.
The suburban revolt (average age 17) is a new type of movement: an uprising of those who no longer appeal to the Republic. Moreover, this is a revolt against the Republic, unable to realize its slogan “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, which, according to the rebels, has become an empty phrase. The name given in France to the inner suburbs from which the riots originate speaks for itself — “lost territories of the Republic.” The inhabitants of these lost territories have little in common with the rest of the French, the common foundation of values has been lost. Although most of them were born and raised in France, they do not feel involved in the history of this country; its symbols are alien and even hostile to them. Not feeling like full-fledged citizens, they do not behave as such, including, in the struggle for their social rights.
How and why did this happen? How did the lost territories of the Republic form and expand, becoming hotbeds of constant destabilisation for the country?
Representatives of the left and right have been arguing about this for many years. The former traditionally place the blame on the state, on the police, and on “structural racism.” The latter blame the migrants themselves and their descendants; believing that they do not want to assimilate and that they hate France and the West, put Islam above the laws of the Republic, and so on.
Summarizing, we can say that as a result of these long-term processes, the French republican model is being destroyed, and a new type of society is emerging in France. As one of the most astute observers, the social geographer Christophe Guilly, writes, “France has accepted all the economic and social norms of globalisation. Resigned to the ‘only possible choice’, it, following many other countries, is completely Americanised, becoming a society of inequality and multiculturalism. From an egalitarian model, we have in a very short time moved to a socially polarised society with a high level of tension in relations between different ethnic groups. These changes were a real catastrophe for the working classes, caused unprecedented social and cultural chaos ... Chaos that reigned under the roar of republican fanfare (that is, under loud exclamations about the ‘one and indivisible Republic’ and its values) that sound louder and louder, but are more false and false” .
Central to the new variety of protests is not the struggle for the rights of workers or for the ability to direct the historical trajectory of the whole society, but the struggle for the rights of minorities, for the observance and expansion of individual rights and freedoms.
The republican ideal is being replaced by the ideology of universal human rights, and the national paradigm is being replaced by a post-colonial vision of a society where various groups, divided by race, gender and other characteristics, and suffering from various forms of oppression, fight each other for power, status and resources. These movements are characterised by revanchism, demands for redemption, reparations and revenge in a harsh form, starting with the destruction of all symbols of the former colonial state. An example of such movements are BlackLivesMatter and MeToo, which have found a wide response in the world, including in France.
Although the process of the dissolution of the nation-state is characteristic of a number of countries, in France it is especially painful, since the institution of the state occupies a central place in the collective consciousness of the French. The current chaos, according to a number of researchers, is directly related to the loss — or rather the abnegation, of the state’s responsibility in performing its sacred consolidating and guiding function.
At the same time, the demand for the restoration of the political powers of a single, indivisible, socially oriented French Republic in all its fullness is still great. The rise of the Yellow Vests reflected the mood of a very wide segment of the population, while the revolt of the “lost territories” only reflects the mood of a minority, but the most radically minded one.