Since the beginning of November, from all corners of France, people in yellow vests have taken to the streets in protest over recent decisions made by French President Emmanuel Macron. They include a tax on fuel that would only impact the working class, a low minimum wage, education reforms over the baccalauréat (secondary-school exam) that would create disparities, as well as other problems. The Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests, began with peaceful protests, but after frustration flowed over, the streets erupted into full on revolution. Cars have been torched, shop windows broken, and brawls with police have been a mainstay of the protests. These protests saw people from all over the political spectrum engage, and after a month of riots, Macron conceded to the Yellow Vests’ demands and has rescinded the fuel tax, promised an increase in the minimum wage, and made employees overtime payments and end-of-year bonuses tax free.
This is not the first time the French have revolted against the ruling class. One of the most well-known examples of uprisings against the government is the French Revolution. It was a full-scale revolution in response to the growing powers of the monarchy as headed by King Louis XVI. Louis had brought the country into a financial crisis after supporting the American Revolution financially, leaving the common people in dire poverty. He called the Estates General, an organization of three estates made of the first (clergy), the second (nobles), and the third (the commons); but when they were to meet, Louis refused the leaders of the commons estate from joining simultaneously with the others. In response, the third estate declared itself a national assembly that worked on the behalf of the commoners. Seeing Louis’ actions as a form of suppression, citizens took to the streets and stormed the Bastille prison, releasing the prisoners inside. In 1791, Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette were tried for treason and summarily executed.
A more recent example of the French revolting is the 1968 Riots. These riots took place over the first six months of that year, starting with peaceful protests that eventually moved to stone throwing and fights with the police. It started with students at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris protesting over restrictions on male and female students visiting each other’s dorms. Then in March, students attacked an American Express office, resulting in multiple arrests and the expulsion of one student. By May, the major rioting had begun. The Dean of Nanterre shut down the campus in fear of the protests which only enraged the students even more. They tried taking their grievances to the Sorbonne, the former campus of the University, but were eventually caught in a battle with the police. On the night of May tenth and into the morning of the eleventh, known as The Night of the Barricades, upwards of 40,000 students flooded the streets of Paris’s Latin Quarter. Students removed cobble stones from the streets to throw at cops and erected barricades to move themselves forward, shielding themselves against the tear gas. The aftermath did not show much result for the riots, but its legacy remains steady in the hearts of the anti-capitalist movements of the world.
The United States has and continues to face similar issues that the French have experienced: poverty, poor working conditions, racism, sexism, fascism, etc. The US has also had its fair share of revolutions apart from the American Revolution of 1776. The French have always had the ability to gather the masses in a popular front against tyranny; The United States has shown it can as well. The US also has a significantly larger population than France, yet it is rare to see riots take place anymore. Why is this?
Public schools in the US teach a very whitewashed, revisionist history, especially regarding protest movements; the depictions of these movements are always ones of pacifistic civil disobedience. Marching through the streets with signs screaming for justice is the usual. Some of these acts have been successful, but they are the only portion of these movements that gets shown in the textbooks; they don’t describe the righteous riots that many activists utilized. The Labor Movement saw many battles with police and the military. One of the most famous of these is the Battle of Blair Mountain, where coal miners rose up against their bosses against low wages, forceful buying and leasing of the company’s tools, and unsafe working conditions. The police and military were called in to help put down the protest, but the workers fought back. Multiple other examples of successful rioting exist, such as The Stonewall Riots and the more recent Baltimore Riots.
Another problem Americans face in coming to terms with rioting is the mixture of ideologies and beliefs regarding it. Ideology drives a person’s beliefs and actions – and from a person who supports the oppression of others, to a pacifistic idealist who refuses any sort of violence, they all each contribute to the lack of uprisings in the US. Problems with the former are self-explanatory, so the focus will be laid on the pacifist. Violence has been ingrained into our culture as “bad”, and peaceful protest is seen as the only correct way to make change. Yet, the government commits mass violence on a daily basis. The US is currently bombing seven countries, with most of its casualties being innocent civilians. In the United States in 2017, nearly 1,000 people were murdered by the police. This does not even count the amount of violence and death caused by economic and social policies that hurt thousands upon thousands of poor people, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalized groups on a daily basis. How is breaking a window more violent than that? The government has a monopoly on violence and continues to tell its citizens that peaceful protest is the only proper way to pour out their grievances.
But what would happen if the people rose up and rioted? There have been many riots in the modern era, but they have become much more dangerous for civilians than ever before. The police are militarized – possessing sniper rifles, machine guns, tear gas, tanks, and other high-powered and deadly weapons – and they are ruthless. Many peaceful protesters end up being beaten and/or arrested on extreme charges, which causes people to be afraid to protest at all.
Getting workers out into the streets is difficult as well. They are broke and must provide for themselves and their families. Wages are low, and people are working longer hours while still remaining in poverty – the average person can’t afford to miss work to protest. Along these lines, mental illness is most common among the impoverished working class. Poverty is a cause of depression. Hopelessness creates apathy, and this apathy prevents them from moving into the streets. Many of these poor folks either get inadequate help, no help, or even self-medicate to cope, creating a vicious cycle that is a battle to escape.
However, hope isn’t lost. We the people can create a new world for ourselves. We have the ability to make change. Showing support to friends, family, neighbors, and all others is a basic first step. The next steps are to Agitate, Educate, and Organize.
Shake the gravel and make yourself uncomfortable with the norm. Much of what the ruling class desires is passivity and compliance with the status quo. Show the reality and history behind these norms and break those norms down.