John Keiger

France is revolting against Macron’s second lockdown

France is revolting against Macron's second lockdown
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Second lockdowns are increasingly difficult for democratic governments to impose and maintain. Violent anti-lockdown demonstrations in Spain and Italy have hit the headlines recently. It was with considerable trepidation, then, that French political leaders ordered France’s second lockdown to begin at midnight last Thursday. It did not help that Macron like Boris had repeatedly said there wouldn’t be a second one. 

Ahead it went, to last officially until 1 December with a mid-term review around 14 November. In his TV address to the nation, president Macron foolhardily declared that lockdown would end when daily infections – running at 50,000 – were reduced to 5,000. The next morning, the head of France’s equivalent of SAGE, professor Delfraissy, witheringly declared that there was no way positive tests could be reduced to 5,000 by 1 December. A bad start. But France’s governing class were already extremely fearful of what a second confinement might provoke. Why?

It is trite to cite the historical banality of France’s revolutionary tradition. Yet of all democratic states (perhaps even undemocratic ones) France has had the most successful revolutions: 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, not to mention those that, while causing mayhem, didn’t quite overturn the government, 1936, 1968.

But these are just the revolutions. They do not include three coup d’états (Napoleon I, Napoleon III, Vichy, sort of) or attempted ones (1889, 1934, 1958, 1961). Nor do they include mere insurrections, riots, strikes.

Of greater importance is that France has an array of historical insurrectionary recipes that she can pick and choose from her cook-book of insurrectionary history according to the current occasion. These modes d’emploi are, to coin a phrase, ‘oven-ready’ in the collective minds of the French people.

Thus the bonnets rouges protests in the early 2000s or the gilets jaunes of the last two years were updated templates of local peasant revolts dating from feudal times that in the collective consciousness are well remembered as la jacquerie.

French rebellion is again in the air a mere five days after lockdown. It is directly provoked by the closing of France’s 200,000 to 300,000 small shops and services – the life-blood of local economies, which are both popular and electorally significant. 

Intellectuals – who have clout in France – petitioned unsuccessfully for local bookshops to stay open. Supermarkets selling the full range of non-essential items, including books, were at first allowed to stay open, fanning the flames. After a government u-turn, they are now required to shut off aisles selling non-essential goods. But the shopkeeper movement is gathering momentum. The prime minister refused to show flexibility in a petulant TV interview on Sunday. Around 50 mayors of all political colour, including Macron’s LREM, have decreed that shops in their towns should stay open. The local arm of central government – the prefects – have ordered mayors to rescind their decrees. A stand-off. The affair has gone to the administrative courts for judicial review and is likely to go to France’s highest administrative body the Conseil d’Etat. That is unlikely to be the end of the matter.

So which of France’s historical identikit insurrections might this scenario fit. Poujadisme of course. Between 1953 and 1957 a shopkeeper and local business movement, led by the charismatic Pierre Poujade, took to the streets to protest at their livelihoods being threatened in post-war France, notably by the development of large supermarkets and high taxation. It quickly took on a political dimension highly critical of the inefficiencies of the Fourth Republic’s parliamentary system. By 1956 it was a political party of right-wing sympathies with 52 members of parliament and two million votes, much opposed to the Treaty of Rome and the nascent European Common Market. A prominent member was a certain Jean-Marie Le Pen, who went on to form the Front national. Today’s shopkeeper movement is strongly supported by mayors from Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national; her former partner and mayor of Perpignan is a prominent leader. The Rassemblement national has shopkeeper revolt in its DNA.

Could the present-day embers of poujadisme light more threatening protests against France’s lockdown? History is never far from France’s present, as Emmanuel Macron is the first to recall. But even if today’s shopkeeper movement is not the harbinger of wide-scale revolt against lockdown, it is undeniably a boost to Marine Le Pen’s election campaign for the 2022 presidentials and more pain for the embattled Macron.

Written byJohn Keiger

John Keiger is a professor of French history and former research director of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

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