In France, mass demonstrations are part of the cultural fabric

Though French President Emmanuel Macron has backpedaled on a controversial fuel tax, protests are expected to continue in France over perceived inequality at large. Historically, direct action has been a consistent part of French political culture. 

Francois Mori/AP
A protestor carries a sign depicting French President Emmanuel Macron as Louis XVI and calling his inauguration the restoration of the monarchy in Paris on May 5. Mass demonstrations and direct action against the government have been features of France's culture for centuries.

French workers riot in the streets over tax hikes, economic inequality, and perceptions that the country's rulers are out of touch.

That was, of course, 1789 – when King Louis XVI helped the rich get tax exemptions and paid for it with his head.

Today, some might see parallels for unpopular President Emmanuel Macron. Democracy has replaced monarchy in France, but the culture of the masses taking their anger against perceived inequality onto the streets of Paris has not changed.

Mr. Macron, a former Rothschild banker whom critics accuse of being a "friend of the rich," stoked popular anger for doing away with a wealth tax last year and proposing to raise fuel taxes that campaigners say will hurt the poorest.

Against this energy tax, "Yellow Vest" protesters carried out Paris' worst rioting in decades this weekend, looting and torching cars in plush neighborhoods near the Champs-Elysees Avenue and graffitiing "Macron=Louis 16." Hundreds have been injured in the protests over recent weeks, and four people have been killed.

The French president caved in. On Wednesday, Macron abandoned the fuel tax hike with his image as an unshakeable leader severely dented.

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

The concessions haven't appeased the protesters who now want more. With wages stagnant and frustration at France's taxes, among the highest in Europe, some Yellow Vests – named after the emergency motorists' jackets that they wear – now want to topple the government. More protests are planned for the weekend.

Protest is such a recurrent part of French history simply because it has often succeeded. Paris' 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," Mr. Wieviorka said.

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

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

Giant demonstrations also forced the French government to ditch the reform of university selection 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.

The mob is indelible in the French psyche because of the 19th century – the memory of its 1830 and 1848 Revolutions and countless uprisings. The architecture of Paris serves as a chilling reminder.

The tumult following 1830's Revolution was immortalized in Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," a classic of French literature later carried around the world as one of the greatest musicals of all time, when it culminates in a confrontation on the Paris barricades during the 1832 uprising.

Later, Napoleon III, fearing such protest could threaten his grip on power, enlisted the help of Baron Haussmann to re-plan the notoriously narrow streets of Paris into wide, easily accessibly boulevards from 1853 – giving birth to the modern French capital. It was thought this would stop the building of barricades that hindered soldiers from restoring order by hiding dissenters. The new boulevards were designed in a star shape, spreading out from one central point to maximize visibility for the army.

"In part, the big boulevards that converge can help stop more protests from happening," Wieviorka said, referring to areas such as the Place de l'Etoile – the location of the Arc de Triomphe.

But the country's rich history of protest has endured all attempts to stymie it, as the Yellow Vest protesters who tore apart the Champs-Elysees this weekend demonstrated: They were seen still erecting barricades.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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