Revolutionary Headwear Turns All Signals Red
Red caps and Phrygian bonnets–powerful symbols of tumultuous earlier revolts — have shaken France’s Socialist government generating a frisson of fear among politicians concerned at early signs of what the leftwing Liberation newspaper warns is an incubating insurrection.
Ongoing street protest — spreading across the south west as this report was published — slow-motion traffic blockades and extensive damage to road tax collection gantries in Brittany, following hard on the heels of massive earlier countrywide anger at mariage pour tous, have seen politicians and analysts anxiously filling the airwaves with talk of a tax revolt a la sans culottes.
A la sans culottes! All of France, steeped in history as it is, knows what that refers to – the 1789 revolution prompted in part by King Louis XVI ’s regressive system of taxation! Indeed the red bonnets donned by the Brittany protesters were designed to invoke this. What is known as the revolt of the Bonnets rouges or of the Torrebens was provoked by rising taxes particularly the papier timbré, a fiscally-stamped, ruled and double margined sheet of paper bought from tax collectors or their agents and filled out whenever a citizen wanted to authenticate any official document. The papier timbré revolt in 1675 led by Bretons successfully challenged Louis XIV’s Ancien Régime.
As French News Online reported earlier: “so disenchanted is the electorate that key municipal elections in France next March may see striking successes for the far-right Front National party. All it needs is for unemployment to remain doggedly high, ruling Socialist popularity stubbornly low and French exasperation to ignite…. Gaël Brustier, a researcher in political science warned recently: ‘the right is mutating. At the demonstrations against mariage pour tous (marriage for all), a broad cultural offensive emerged, a new generation of political cadres has begun to surface, a growing fusion of electorates was confirmed and a potential tipping point is in sight. The vast movement we saw against mariage pour tous is born of ‘moral panic.’ This moral panic has set in motion the re-composition of the right – a Tea Party à la française. A fusion of different constituencies involving right and far-right is underway. The cultural and political affinity being forged is likely to lead to an electoral bloc.”
The key issue raised by the burgeoning Redcap revolt and the earlier Phrygian bonnet protests is, say some analysts, the clear message that Socialist head-of-state François Hollande — branded by opinion poll after opinion poll as France’s most unpopular president in half century — is inadequate for the job. He is, as one report noted “not a large or brutal or complicated enough personality to play what has, in any case, become an impossible role: the executive presidency created by, and for, Charles de Gaulle in the late 1950s”.
This was the dilemma that prompted Jean Francois Kahn, co-founder of Marianne, — a magazine named for the Phrygian-coiffed symbol of the French Revolution — to call for a return to the constitution of the Vth republic as a way of resolving a worsening political crisis. Kahn wrote: ” ‘This at Article 20 says: the government of the Republic determines and carries out the politics of the nation. It is responsible to parliament.‘ The president should be a figurehead, a balance of power and leave the country in the hands of a strong prime minster”. The problem is who would that be in the eclectic coalition of Greens and differing strands of Socialists that comprise the current administration? Khan does not offer an answer.
So what lies behind the Bonnets rouges or red-capped Breton revolt? Their strength lies in their differences. They appear to be a coalition of the large-scale farming industry which dominates the area (the country’s largest producer of livestock and meat and hard hit by plant closures due to globalisation and competition from cheaper foreign rivals), small farm producers, small businessmen, truck operators and food sector workers. Their red bonnets are meant as a warning to government of what happened in the 17th century Breton revolt against taxation then perceived as unjust. A reporter from the Rue 89 online news-site who covered the riots, noted with astonishment the number of powerful 4x4s in the car-park assembly point for the demonstration saying he thought he was watching a demonstration by the lamanifpourtous –the Phrygian-bonneted anti-homosexual marriage campaigners. What his report shows is how broadly-based the support is for the tax revolt. Under the surface lie other grievances. Brittany feels its peripheral position on the western coast has excluded it from advantages won by other regions, while deeper still lie the folk memories of Breton nationalism – demands by Breton-speakers for Breton regional independence. (“Breton cultural nationalism includes an important linguistic component, with Breton and Gallo speakers seeking equality with French language in the region. Cultural nationalists also seek a re-invigoration of Breton music, traditions and symbols, and the forging of strong links with other Celtic nations.”)
In answer to the spreading protests government delayed introduction of the eco-tax but is refusing to row back entirely mainly because of the huge contractual penalty involved in abrogation. According to the French website Mediapart: “ The contract with Ecomouv signed by former president Nicholas Sarkozy includes a 1 billion euro penalty if the tax is withdrawn for any reason.”
This is to compensate Ecomouv for the infrastructure it has erected to remotely scan and track GPS-eqippped trucks using the network. Government has already promised to pay for damage done– at a reported cost of a million euros a time — by protesters who have knocked down and destroyed several Ecomouv gantries and threaten to wreck more.
The Breton-led revolt prompted in part by the ongoing loss of jobs in the region seems set to continue, particularly given the president’s Canute-like promises to stem and turn back the rising tide of unemployment – 3.3 million in September– by the end of 2013. Writing in the London based Independent newspaper Paris correspondent John Lichfield says: “The problem is … a series of tax rises now hitting middle income households. Some were actually introduced by his predecessor, Mr Sarkozy in an attempt to slash the French budget deficit at the height of the eurozone crisis in 2010-11. Others, including a tax on overtime, have been imposed by Mr Hollande’s government… All have come to be seen as Mr Hollande’s fault, partly because of poor communication or outright contradictory statements between himself and his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. ‘The core of the problem is Hollande’s own personality,” said one despairing Socialist party politician. “He wanted to create a kinder, gentler, less frenetic presidency after Sarkozy. Instead, he is often absent when he should have been active or gets involved too late and makes things worse.’
Red caps and other protesters were among crowds on the Champs-Elysées during Great War Armistice Day commemorations November 11. The video clip shows groups booing the presidential cavalcade along the route:
The video-clip below is one view of some of the history that might put the present revolt into perspective:
During the war of succession in Brittany, Duke Jean IV of Montfort, known as Jean le Conquéreur (1339-1399 ), an ally of the English against his opponent Charles de Blois, had been repulsed by the King of France Charles V, a friend of de Blois, and by the Breton chiefs who disliked English influence. But, when Charles V tried to annex Britanny to France after the death of de Blois and despite the rights of Montfort, the Bretons asked Montfort to return. Thus on August 3rd, 1379, he landed at Dinard to reclaim the throne of Brittany. Today the song is a symbol of Breton independence.
PS: The pictures in the clip are not all about Jean de Monfort but they were chosen in a bid to provide credible illustration for the song.
— Jacques Le Bris (@JMFLB) November 9, 2013
Story: Ken Pottinger
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