Bonnets Rouges Force French Government to Abandon New Tax

A tax resistance movement in France has led to riots and has forced the government to back down on some of its new tax plans. Today I’ll share some clips from news articles I’ve been reading to try to keep up with the emerging campaign.

bonnets rouges and Breton flags in the recent anti-tax demonstrations in Brittany

In the middle of last month, before things went hot, Atlantico brought together some figures to speculate about the possibility of a tax strike. Excerpts:

According to information published by the newspaper Le Monde, 72% of French people consider the amount of taxes excessive, and 43% believe that paying the tax is not a “civic responsibility.”… Should we expect a large tax revolt movement in France, and if so, under what conditions could it actually happen?

Atlantico consulted Manon Sieraczek-Laporte, a lawyer who has written about French taxpatriates. She mentioned the group Les Tondus (The Fleeced), a group of businesses that is resisting employment taxes. She concluded that this was “apparently a phenomenon of organized corporations (entrepreneurs, artisans, merchangs), which suggests that the ‘May ’68 of taxes’ is still a ways off. It would require a movement of hundreds of thousands of people to become of a scale sufficient to force changes.”

Right-wing politician Claude Reichman put it this way: “The movement has already started, but it is still unsure about which means to employ.”

Pirate Party activist Eric Verhaeghe noted that the tax resistance was not likely to be launched or encouraged by means of preexisting groups like Medef (Movement of French Enterprises) or CGPME (General Confederation of Small and Medium Enterprises) because these groups have been coopted by government financial support: “[they] are largely financed by public funds; some of their leaders are dependent on government contracts.”

However, groups like “les patrons militants,” “les pigeons,” and “les tondus” “are quasi-spontaneous unions of employers or entrepreneurs unhappy with public policy who intend to influence the debate. To achieve this, they avoid large official union machines and prefer to act virally and through flash mobs… For governments, this method is a challenge because it is difficult to predict and counter. This explains why the movements funded by public authorities have the mission of channeling these ‘pirates’ and then breaking them.”

Reichman turned up the rhetoric a notch: “For twenty years I have been fighting for social liberty. Today, tens of thousands of French people are choosing to abandon Social Security. I call them the army of the Free French. They are fighting against the bureaucrats and the welfare-dependent. The Free French must win for the life of France.”

William Genieys, an author who has written on the history of French politics, then gave a run-down of some prior French tax rebellions — like The Fronde (), the Poujadism of , and a variety of tax discontent movements in . He concludes: “Here we see that the limit of state power is precisely its ability to collect taxes with consent.”

The interviewer asked next what legal steps the current crop of protesters might take. Sieraczek-Laporte made some speculations in that direction, but then Reichman declared:

There will be no legal organization. You don’t really believe that in the current pre-revolutionary climate, the protesters will organize themselves into an club, elect a president, a general secretary, a treasurer, as an angler’s club might? This is something quite different: to overthrow a confiscatory system that ruins France and to replace it with a true democracy where the State concerns itself with core functions and lets the French undertake and enjoy the fruits of their labor — the opposite of what is actually happening!

Not long after, violent protests in Brittany against an impending new fuel tax led the government to suspend the tax for the time being. “It was the second time in less than a week that [French President François] Hollande’s embattled government backed away from a tax increase, after on saying it would not impose planned [retroactive] tax hikes on savings plans.” (And that followed closely after another retreat, when Hollande abandoned plans to shift corporate taxation from taxing sales to taxing operating profit: “ ‘The cumulative effect of these retreats is that they confirm in many voters’ eyes that the government is struggling to govern,’ said Bruno Jeanbart, a director of Paris-based pollster OpinionWay.”

Why Brittany — a politically left-leaning region that might be thought to be sympathetic to the Socialist president and what he billed as an “eco tax” on fuel-hungry big trucks? Partially this is because Brittany is dependent on agriculture, and agriculture is dependent on those big trucks. But there’s more to it than that: Pierre Vermeren looked into the history of Brittany and its complicated relationship with the rest of France. He detects a revival of Breton nationalism at the root of the revolt.

Bloomberg Businessweek cast worried eyes on the rebellion: “Growing anti-tax sentiment also could make it harder for the government to collect levies already on the books. ‘Tax uncertainty is greater than ever, and actions of tax resistance/avoidance, often anecdotal, are multiplying,’ wrote Cavalier of Oddo Securities.”

Clarí reported that “the fear of the intelligence services is that the violent tax revolt might spread ‘like wildfire’ to other regions with strong regional identity such as the Basque country, Alsace, and Nice.”

This article from France 24, has some good video footage of the first round of protests.

Then, , demonstrators who were not mollified by Hollande’s temporary suspension of his fuel tax and his eager (desperate) call for “dialog” struck again:

Demonstrators protesting layoffs and rising taxes set a toll bridge on fire and threw stones at police in north-western France.

Protesters threw rocks near the barricaded offices of the prefect in Quimper, capital of the Finistere department of Brittany. Police responded with tear gas.

Outside Quimper, demonstrators set tyres on fire to light the bridge.

Many of the protesters wore red caps as a symbol of the Bretons’ historical resistance to taxes imposed by the “Sun King,” Louis ⅩⅣ. They held signs in Quimper that said, “Right to work,” “Stop the taxes” and “The French are no milk cows.”

Protest organizers said more than 30,000 people took part in the demonstration. Authorities said nearly 10,000 turned out in Quimper.

Professional associations, unions, and farmers groups called ’s protest. Hundreds of police were deployed to discourage unrest.

Here is some footage of this weekend’s riots and also of the resisters’ use of red liberty caps and the flag of Brittany in their demonstrations.