French protests threaten to spill into Europe
The cost-of-living crisis is hurting the whole continent
Shocking scenes emerged this weekend from Sainte-Soline, a rural district in Western France. Police vehicles burned as protestors hurled rocks and fireworks. At one point, police officers on quad bikes used what appeared to be light mobilised infantry tactics against the protesters, who opposed the building of a large water reservoir to be used for farm irrigation.
The clashes in Sainte-Soline come after similar scenes across the rest of France. Two weeks ago riots broke out on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, with 120 arrested after a night of violence and chaos. These protests were not due to waterworks, but because President Emmanuel Macron announced that the retirement age was to be raised from 62 to 64.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Commentators were quick to point out that pensions have long been a hot topic in France, liable to generating protests and public backlash. As far back as 1995, the country saw mass strikes against proposals to raise the retirement age. The so-called Juppé Plan — named after Alain Juppé, then newly Prime Minister — was quickly put aside after the largest mass protests since 1968. Coupled with an outside perception that France is a country uniquely prone to civil unrest, this provides enough context for most commentators.
Yet what does pension reform have to do with a reservoir in Western France? Why did the scenes look so similar in Paris and Sainte-Soline despite the fact that they had radically different causes? Some of this is probably explained by the involvement of far-Left agitators in both events. Yet this explanation only begs the question: why are these radical elements so easily able to whip up a mob?
Perhaps the best way to understand what is happening in France — and why it may have broader importance for other European countries — is to consider when the recent protests actually started. Without much fanfare, on 16th October of last year, tens of thousands of Parisians took to the streets. The protests were organised by Left-wing opposition groups, including the same trade unions that organised the recent pension reform protests. Their concern? Rising living costs. Similar protests followed in January, with thousands of workers marching across the country to demand solutions to the cost-of-living crisis.
Polling has been indicating that this has been a major issue for some time. A European-wide poll taken in October last year showed that a majority of voters in Europe’s four largest countries expected social unrest and public protests in the coming months due to rising living costs. Perhaps these voters’ prognostications were not so much accurate as self-fulfilling. Interestingly, the poll showed that the problems were getting particularly acute in France. In Britain and Germany one in five people said that they were coping well with rising living costs; in Poland and France only one in twenty gave the same response.
All this leads to the conclusion that pensions and reservoirs might only be precipitating factors in the social unrest we are seeing in France. The real cause may well be rising living costs. The first event of the French Revolution — the so-called Day of the Tiles — was nominally caused by aristocrats refusing to relinquish their fiscal privilege. But the events were precipitated by rising living costs, in turn caused by poor harvests, leading to high costs for bread.
This raises the uncomfortable prospect that what we are seeing may not be unique to France. Living costs are rising across Europe, driven by an energy crisis partly caused by western sanctions against Russia. Notably, in January, electricity prices were raised by 15% in France; without government subsidies they would have doubled. Meanwhile, gas imports into Europe this year are at historic lows. Liquefied natural gas has replaced some of the Russian gas, but not nearly enough. This suggests that we have a hard winter ahead of us — likely much harder than the last. What we are seeing in France may be the beginning of much larger social unrest across Europe in the coming months.
Far-Left activists stoking up a rebellion using resentment at the cost of living to fuel public anger – and careful to avoid any serious challenge to ruinous eco-obsessions. The Ukraine war has exposed (not caused) the energy poverty the Greens have been dragging us down into.
They are Cost of *Lockdown* protests.
Cost of Net Zero Protests.
The current economic woes have been caused exclusively by the ‘expert’ class of central planners.
Get it right.
I knew with this author that we’d get to sanctions against Russia in the end. But high rates of inflation are not primarily due to sanctions against Russia, however self defeating. In fact falling energy costs are now a drag on inflation, although the unwinding of energy price supports in France may muddy the picture. Inflation has been driven by QE, which accelerated during Lockdown, and was in fact necessary during Lockdown to bolster popular support for shutting down the economy at that time, which might otherwise have led to protests against sudden mass unemployment. Printing more money to fund government supports inevitably led to inflation: if QE on that scale had not happened, energy price inflation would have been offset by deflation in other parts of the economy.
There is much more to this than the cost of living crisis. The left should have stuck to occupy wall st rather than get in bed with the kleptocracy. These wounds go back to the GFC. They have festered ever since and now erupted.
The French have always been revolting to be honest.
The left has tired of democracy and the electorate.
Protests like France… oh no Mr and Mrs Compliant-Lemming in nu Britn would not dream of it… there would be ” guidelines” to prevent it…
I’m not sure I would describe the cost of living crisis as “partly caused by western sanctions against Russia” but rather “attenuated” or “magnified” or “accelerated” by western sanctions against Russia. The crisis stems from exponential increases in electricity costs – and Europe was well in its way to energy poverty pre-Putin invading Ukraine. The invasion & resulting sanctions merely brought the inevitable forward.
Let them burn cake. Or maybe, you cant burn your cake and eat it.
I wondered if Pilkington would blame Russian sanctions for the French being lazy, and I wasn’t disappointed even if he did make me wait until the end of the article. The French have been rioting about any perceived slight (no matter how minor) since before I was born, so why is this one going to be the one to bring down the west?
Having lived in France for nearly fifteen years, I can assure you that the ordinary French worker is anything but lazy. If Brits worked as hard, the productivity gap would disappear.
idleness is largely restricted to the Nomenklatura in the the public sector and the large corporations.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe