The French are angry again. President Francois Hollande's popularity is at a record low, and an opinion poll released Thursday by BMFTV news channel indicates that two out of three people in France are actually willing to take to the streets to protest his government. The poll was released four days after 30,000 people, or 15,000 people according to police estimates, rallied against a tax on the transport of goods in Brittany.
While protests feature prominently in French politics, the current anti-government sentiment comes as the country continues to suffer from the European crisis. With prospects of rising unemployment and modest economic growth in 2014, social unrest will probably increase in France and many other European countries next year.
For centuries, France has been a hotbed of rebellion and dissent and a powerhouse of political ideas that spread to the rest of the world. From the French Revolution to the 1968 student protests, the French typically are inclined to express their ideas on the streets.
Geography partly explains this phenomenon. With the Pyrenees in the south, the Alps in the southeast, the Atlantic Ocean in the west and north, and the Rhine in the northeast, France has had relatively stable borders for roughly a millennium. Couple with few internal barriers, this enabled France to cohere socially and develop a strong sense of national identity.
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Because of its location on the North European Plain, France has struggled to protect its northeastern border, the traditional route for foreign invasion. This has shaped France's identity and foreign policy, particularly in its tortuous relationship with its powerful eastern neighbor, Germany.
Its geographic position also enabled France to become one of the first modern nation-states to centralize political power. The strategic location of the capital, Paris, in the Beauce — one of France's most prosperous agricultural regions — and that city's connection with several rivers gave it administrative control of trading routes with the rest of France and Europe. France thus became a unified state early in its history, with a strong central government and relatively weak regions.
This makes France significantly different from Spain and Italy, where rugged geography begat social and political disunity and impeded the consolidation of a strong central power. While regionalism and local identities exist in France, they are not as strong as they are in other European countries, and France has never dealt with serious secessionist movements.
The existence of a strong central power and the relative weakness of intermediary bodies between the state and society helps us understand the French protest culture. During the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, institutional reforms allowed more people to participate in the democratic process and permitted greater labor representation. As a result, people began to protest more, and thus labor movements, student movements and several sectoral movements, such as regionalist or agricultural movements, were at the heart of the protest culture.
These groups retain their ability to influence politics to this day. Trade unions have become less powerful over the past three decades — trade union membership has declined steadily — but they still play a central role in organizing protests, particularly in the public sector. The agricultural sector is also influential for historic and economic reasons. First, France has traditionally been an agricultural country; massive urbanization came relatively late, so the agricultural sector is a key element in French identity. Second, while agriculture accounts for only about 2 percent of the French gross domestic product, France is the world's second-largest agricultural exporter and the world's sixth-largest agricultural producer. So as the protests of food producers in Brittany show, agriculture is a very sensitive political issue.
The presence of relatively strong unions in the public sector, the centrality of the agricultural sector in French politics and culture, and France's protest culture make it difficult for central governments to apply structural reforms. Since becoming president in 2011, Hollande has been accommodative, seeking compromises with relevant parties to avoid conflict. However, the strategy has also prevented the Elysee from approving substantial reforms to address France's declining competitiveness and slow economic growth.
In the meantime, the French elite — and to a large extent, the European elite — will continue to be discredited. In most of the eurozone countries, unemployment will remain high for the foreseeable future even if some economies manage to achieve some modest economic growth. As people who have lost their jobs become more desperate, and people who are afraid of losing their jobs become more skeptical about the future, perceptions that decision-makers in France and Europe are unable to or incapable of solving the unemployment crisis will grow. Dealing with the consequences of this distrust in the ruling elites will be a key challenge for the political establishment in France and across Europe in the coming years.