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Intervention – ‘Brittany topsy-turvy: The Bonnets Rouges movement’

Brittany topsy-turvy: The Bonnets Rouges movement

Jean Gardin, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne*

The Bonnets Rouges (‘Red Beanies’) movement has been developing since mid-October 2013 in Brittany (a region in north-western France). The movement brings together an array of farmers, workers in the agribusiness industry, CEOs of various companies, local politicians with diverse views, as well as regionalist groups. The Bonnets Rouges opposes the implementation of the écotaxe, a new ‘ecological’ tax on freight transportation by trucks. Its main actions so far are the demolition of the surveillance porticos built on major highways, as well as demonstrations usually ending in violence. The movement takes place in a particularly dramatic socioeconomic environment, since for the past year a succession of downsizing and accompanying ‘social plans’ have been carried out in the Breton agribusiness sector.

In this intervention, I will give an account of these recent events, before trying to interpret their meaning. In concluding, I offer some thoughts on the politics of regionalism in France (drawing on John Agnew’s [2001] work).

The Bonnets Rouges movement: A brief recap of the recent events

The movement’s supporters have taken up a name and emblem (the bonnet rouge) in reference to a 17th century peasant uprising triggered by the imposition of a new tax by Louis XIV.[1] Very rapidly dubbed by some commentators and politicians as a ‘poujadiste’[2] movement, due to its anti-tax dimension, as well as to its capacity to mobilize beyond class barriers, the high visibility during demonstrations of the Breton flag (gwenn ha du), the frequent use of regionalist slogans, and the participation of various Breton separatist groups ranging from the extreme Right to the extreme Left.[3]

For one accustomed to French political life, the movement seems fraught with a number of paradoxes.

gwenn ha duThe movement appeared in a political context (the voting of the 2014 national budget), filed by the media under a supposed wave of “tax revolt”, in a country plagued by downsizing and a politics of austerity which fails so far to balance the budgetary deficit. But if the movement’s spreading outside of Brittany is real[4], it remains so far very weak, as if Breton singularity made it a non-assimilable political object (or at the very least one that is not easy to mobilize) in our Jacobean country. Yet, this regional dimension was unexpected. On the one hand, Brittany poses as a socio-environmental martyr sacrificed on the altar of an agribusiness model implemented since the 1960s, instrumental in the destruction of nature and agricultural jobs[5]. The resistance to the imposition of an ecological tax supposedly helping the relocation of both production and marketization chains seems to prove that this very ‘martyrdom’ weighs little in comparison to industrial jobs and the interests of agribusiness CEOs confronted with the permanent risk of bankruptcy in a deregulated European Union. On the other hand, while Brittany remains an old Catholic stronghold, Bretons have been massively voting for decades for the (currently ruling) Socialist Party, thus participating in a spectacular political inversion as deep as unexpected. The Socialist Party’s constituency now lies in the most conservative French regions, where the urban/industrial imprint was the least prominent[6]. It is precisely one of these socialist strongholds which revolts today against a President it helped get elected in 2012[7].

While the spreading of the movement is concentrated around Brittany, its political repercussions at the national level are unprecedented. Very recently, at a commemoration of the allied victory of November 1918, a couple of hundred demonstrators sporting red beanies booed President Hollande on the Champs Elysées in Paris[8]. Media commentators almost unanimously condemned this action as anti-republican, at a time when the socialist government, confronted to numerous difficulties[9], appears unable to follow a clear political strategy, simply reproducing the austerity doctrine dictated at the European level. In this context, the Bonnets Rouges movement prompted some commentators to call for the dissolution of the National Assembly[10], and some politicians to even call for the President’s resignation[11].

French media analysts now seem to be in a state of shock. On the Right, some talk of a ‘French tea party’[12] while others invoke the presage of the French Revolution of 1789[13]. On the Left, the reaction of the newspaper Libération epitomizes the same kind of confusion. The newspaper, quite representative of the liberal and educated Left, headlined its 13 November issue with a single word: ‘ENOUGH’. This ‘enough’ was not directly aimed at the Bonnets Rouges movement; it was focusing on the condemnation of recent racial slurs aimed at the Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira (a Guyanese woman). Yet, the newspaper’s columns proposed a slightly comical anthology of the country’s seditious movements. The Red Beanies came first in this list, followed by the opponents to mariage pour tous, the Green Beanies (Bonnets Verts – opposing the VAT on public transportation), and the Orange Beanies (Bonnets Oranges – owners of riding clubs opposing the rise of VAT on their business)! This failure of the Left to understand this social movement also showed in Prime Minister Ayrault’s recent declaration: “We are not here to practice sociology but to solve problems”. On the Left wing of the Socialist Party, the confusion remains the same: while the NPA (the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, which enjoyed media exposure and relatively good electoral results at the beginning of the 2000s, but is now struggling) supports the movement, the Front de Gauche (a coalition of parties – ‘the Left of the Left’, including the French Communist Party – it attracted 11% of the vote in the 2012 presidential election) and its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, strongly condemned it:

“Encouraged by a cringing, cowardly government ready to give in to their demands, the bosses and priests of Brittany are getting the simpletons out into the streets to demonstrate for their right to transport pigs in shameless conditions and at cut-throat prices from one end of Europe to the other. In Quimper, people are demonstrating for the continued pollution of our once-beautiful Brittany by the nitrates of overproduction. In Quimper, people are demonstrating for ever lower salaries for farmers and for the reign of big supermarkets. In Quimper, slaves are demonstrating for the rights of their masters.”[14]

His anger is understandable. The original Bonnet Rouge symbolics were mobilized in the 1970s by the Breton local sections of the Communist Party. Yet, the current mobilization of the Bonnet Rouge proceeds from an efficient marketization effort, pushed by a club of Breton entrepreneurs claiming that only the regional scale and Breton identity are legitimate in the struggle for economic development[15]. This club, l’Institut de Locarn, is now instrumental in the development of the movement, following its cultivation of a long strategy of association with pan-European ethnic-based movements[16].

What sense can we make of all this?

Even though it appears to be manipulated by entrepreneurs’ lobbies, one cannot deny that the regional scale is used as a powerful mobilizing factor. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s tragedy is that no-one listens to him anymore in Brittany, since he has been denigrating a movement articulated around a strong regional identity. United under the Gwenn ha du flag, people of all walks of life are now demonstrating. For a lot of them, the écotaxe works as a pretext to express a historically vocal regionalist identity which has been constantly disparaged by the French Republic[17]. The movement is partly organized by trade unions (Force Ouvrière, while CFDT and CGT distanced themselves from the movement), partly by local entrepreneurs, and partly by the dominant farmer’s union (Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d’Exploitants Agricoles [FNSEA] – deeply implicated in Breton’s socio-environmental scandals). In Guingamp, a city exceptionally dependent on poorly-paid agribusiness jobs, advertisers promoting Breton agribusiness products pooled their resources to unfold a banner denouncing the écotaxe on national television during League 1 football games.

Guingamp-Ajaccio League 1 gameGuingamp-Ajaccio League 1 game, 27 October 2013, Guingamp: “Brittany wants to live – no to the écotaxe” (photo by author)

It seems useless to point to the contradictions at play here. They were particularly blatant on the occasion of the Quimper demonstration, when FNSEA-affiliated farmers destroyed the mobile sound system of Force Ouvrière which was blasting anti-managerial slogans[18]. Nevertheless, the movement crystallized around Breton identity and a key slogan, ‘Live, work, and make all the decisions locally’. Unable to anticipate the regional dimension of the movement, most unions and left-wing political parties proved incapable of representing the workers demonstrating in Quimper[19]. As an alternative, a whole system of local interdependencies has taken charge; a coalition of workers and bosses mostly, but also Catholic charity networks[20], sports clubs, etc.[21], all of which would not have been possible in more urban/industrial regions marked by deindustrialization, massive structural unemployment, and the collapse of related forms of solidarity. The Bretons who demonstrate are not defending pollution and the destruction of husbandry, but are seizing the opportunity to rebel against a state-led form of ecological bureaucracy, accused of threatening the competitiveness of French companies (and delegated under suspicious circumstances to a private Italian company[22]). We are far here from the fiscal selfishness of Catalonia or Piedmont – probably because Brittany is not a particularly wealthy region[23].

At the national scale, the strong impact of the movement echoes the current frailty of the government, but it also reveals that contestation is now coming from the Right, in a new form, not from a strictly individualistic point of view (most of the demonstrators probably voted for the Socialists in the latest presidential election), not from a partisan point of view (the traditional right-wing parties have been in a state of shock ever since the presidential election), but in the form of an anti-tax movement (surprising, due to the pro-tax tradition of the Left). This shift to the Right in France has been much discussed since the success of Manif’ pour tous demonstrations led by opponents to same sex marriage, but here the contestation takes place in a Socialist-voting region. Thus, the French electoral anomaly is strongly underlined.

The geography of voting patterns can also be mobilized to connect the regional and the national scale. The Bonnets Rouges movement is at the national scale perceived by the Left as poujadist and anti-republican (due to its regionalist tendency as well as the 11 November incident on the Champs-Élysées) and thus as a symptom of the growing influence of the extreme-Right. Yet, the main extreme-Right party in France (Front National) scores poorly in Brittany. One does not know whether this party will gain votes in Brittany after the turmoil (local elections are scheduled for March 2014), but so far, one cannot but recognize the distortion at play between the lived political space at the regional level and the perceived political space at the national level.

Conclusion : Regionalism in the French political debate

From a political perspective, it now seems clear that the Bonnets Rouges movement is not a French Tea Party. Its proponents do not aim at gaining influence in a right-wing party to moralize politics in the capital city. They simply confuse the issue. Holding values identified today as right-wing, they force the Left to contemplate its total failure at designing an efficient economic policy. The waning of the movement could come next, as the agro-industrial entrepreneurs’ lobbies could well gain financial guaranties from the government and European Union in order to sustain their dirty business[24]. At the very least, what is clear is that the Left comes out as completely flabbergasted.

For a more theoretical take on these events, we could discuss the regionalist dimension of the movement. In 2001, John Agnew sketched out four explanations developed by geographers concerning the rise of regionalist movements at different periods and in different places.

The first addresses the issue of the uncompleted nature of states born out of decolonisation processes and the end of the cold war: it “…involved the legitimacy of boundaries established under colonialism…[and] the suppression of liberties and human rights under the communist regimes and right-wing dictatorships arrayed on either side during the cold war between the USSR and the USA from the 1940s until the 1980s” (Agnew 2001: 106).

The second looks at “…the transformation of the world economy…in which where you are in relation to networks of power and flows of capital and goods determines your relative prosperity. From this point of view, regionalist movements are a reaction to the effective breakdown of established states as brokers between particular places and the world economy. To protect their identities and pursue their interests regions must now organize themselves for global competition” (ibid.).

The third focuses on “…recent trends towards supranationalism, as in the European Union and other such arrangements, as encouraging the growth of regional identities within existing states…[T]he ‘Europe of the regions’ is a result of the joint impact of pressure from above and demands from below for increased political autonomy” (ibid.).

And finally, the fourth explanation sees regionalism as “symptomatic of a wider crisis of identity in the contemporary world…As established spatial and cultural boundaries and identifications come under stress from rapid communication and the widespread ‘sharing’ of images and events, there is a need to restore social stability to everyday life by inventing new identities. Regional ones are convenient because they help restore a sense of social ‘belonging’ that can be readily visualized for generations that are increasingly visual (rather than textual) in orientation” (ibid.).

It seems unnecessary to invent a fifth explanation for the Breton case. The above four can all play a part, but we won’t speculate about the relative weight of each here. It seems more interesting to examine which of these explanations are put forward by the various stakeholders. The second explanation (implying the regional level as the most relevant with regards to spatial organization within a globalized world economy) is clearly taken up by the Institut Locarn. It is an explanation articulated by the economic elites. The first explanation (that of incomplete decolonisation) is put forward during the Bonnets Rouges demonstrations. “Brittany has been conquered but not subdued”, they say: the ecotax has been rendered de facto illegitimate since the wedding of Anne de Bretagne and the king of France in 1532 [25].

The last two explanations (the support of regionalism by supranational structures such as the EU, and the assertion of local identity as a quick-fix painkiller against cultural globalization) are obviously not elaborated upon so far at the local scale, and are more frequently found in the speeches of politicians legitimizing the intervention of the nation state. We can draw a parallel between Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s speech and the anti-regionalism which Agnew describes as opposed to movements “[f]rom one point of view…atavistic, dangerous to liberties and potentially costly in terms of both the violence and the fiscal damage they can inflict…They are best dealt with by creating nonterritorial electoral constituencies so as to diminish their electoral weight, stimulating nonterritorial identities, and ensuring fairness in fiscal redistribution. Such measures all presume, however, that regionalist movements are invariably a reactionary force”. It would therefore be difficult to remain blind to the fact that the region operates as a continually transforming political object, subject to social, political, and even academic fields. Finding out whether the Red Beanies movement is the expression of regionalism (or not) will be foremost among academic discourses. At this point a critical approach can probably shed some light by underlining how any new definition of the regional reality is fundamentally contextual and political, particularly as it enables political stakeholders to redefine the scales of the exercise of power. At this point, it would be helpful to refer back to French political geographer André Siegfried (1913), an essential scholar yet a seldom quoted one, who, at the onset of the 20th century, had articulated a very relevant political concept of the region…a conception he had formulated by analyzing in particular the political legacy of the rebellion of the original Bonnets Rouges, those of 1675![26]

8 December 2013

Acknowledgements

My thanks to Claire Bénit-Gbaffou, Sophie Didier, Nanon Gardin, Annaig and Goulven Oiry, and Pierre Sintès for their comments

Endnotes

*Thanks to Sophie Didier (Université Paris 13 Nord) for the translation.

[1] The 1670-1675 Bonnets Rouges revolt targeted local nobility and the clergy as much as the new tax imposed by the king. The areas in Brittany most affected by the revolt (Monts d’Arrée) were those that happened to be the least affected by Chouannerie one hundred years later and which also became rural strongholds for the communist party during the 20th century. (see Nicolas 2002). The woolen beanies, sold by knitwear company Armor Lux, are labeled ‘made in Brittany’ even though most of them are knitted in Scotland. Armor Lux has tried to copyright the ‘Bonnets Rouges’ label, but a far-Right movement beat them to it.

[2] In reference to Pierre Poujade, leader of a union of small shopkeepers which managed in 1956 to have 52 representatives voted into the National Assembly. Amongst the numerous references to poujadisme that the Bonnets Rouges movement has inspired, this one in particular stands out: “On Friday, Budget Minister Bernard Cazeneuve asked the French to ‘snap out of their fever in order to snap out of the crisis’, castigating ‘the extreme-Right’, ‘fiscal poujadism’ and a ‘certain form of hatred’ rampant in France nowadays, according to him. ‘These past few weeks, unacceptable acts of violence have been perpetrated, and we must condemn them without feebleness’” (http://www.lepoint.fr/economie/cazeneuve-denonce-la-haine-et-le-poujadisme-fiscal-15-11-2013-1757491_28.php).

[3] Three examples of autonomist movements united in their fight against the écotaxe, from Left to Right: Mouvement Breizhistance (http://www.bretagne-info.org/2013/10/29/pourquoi-la-gauche-independantiste-manifestera-samedi-2-novembre-a-quimper/); Union Démocratique Bretonne (http://www.udb-bzh.net/index.php/fr/blog/communiques/3460-suspension-de-l-ecotaxe-l-udb-salue-une-decision-d-apaisement-mais-reste-vigilante); and Jeune Bretagne, whose website is currently inaccessible.

[4] A few acts of vandalism have been noted in départements of Nord, Gard and Paris: http://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/societe/ecotaxe-operation-escargot-et-destruction-de-portiques-dans-le-sud_1298246.html

[5] 151,000 farmers and co-farmers in 1970, 47,000 in 2010 (http://www.agreste.agriculture.gouv.fr/en-region/bretagne/). Brittany now holds 56% of pigs, 46% of chickens, 48% of turkeys bred in the country – on 6% of its total cultivated area. The resulting pollution of soils and waters (http://www.bretagne-environnement.org/Eau/Les-pollutions-et-menaces/Origines-des-pollutions/Les-pollutions-agricoles) is leading to dramatic environmental issues on the tourist coasts (http://www.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/Quelles-nuisances-les-algues.html).

[6] And even though, at the local level, tiny dechristianized and communist pockets still remain in Brittany, in the rural areas most affected by the 17th century Bonnets Rouges uprising as well as the harbors and military arsenals. For an anthropological and historical explanation of political regional behaviors in France, see Lebras and Todd (2013).

[7] Interestingly, the écotaxe was the brainchild of the previous conservative government led by President Sarkozy.

[8] There is strong suspicion that the Bonnets Rouges who booed President Hollande came mostly from Parisian far-Right movements and were opponents to mariage pour tous (‘same sex marriage’). Mariage pour tous is the popular phrasing for the law passed in May 2013 allowing same sex marriage. The law has been opposed by a range of groups, including ‘Le Printemps français’ – a Catholic group, on the Right, defending so-called ‘traditional family values’.

[9] See: the Budget Minister’s resignation after lying to the National Assembly about his fiscal evasion; the parliamentary battle to pass the budget; the ongoing opposition to mariage pour tous; and teachers (a traditional constituency of the Socialist Party) opposing the reform of schools’ weekly schedules…

[10] See http://www.lefigaro.fr/politique/2013/11/14/01002-20131114ARTFIG00559-les-francais-preferent-une-dissolution-de-l-assemblee-a-un-remaniement.php

[11] See http://www.rtl.fr/actualites/info/politique/article/francois-hollande-doit-demissionner-estime-herve-morin-7766946811

[12] See http://www.lefigaro.fr/politique/2013/11/13/01002-20131113ARTFIG00270-la-majorite-craint-la-montee-d-un-tea-party-a-la-francaise.php

[13] Alain Madelin, a political figure of the neoliberal Right and initiator of the current legislation on public-private partnerships: “As to the Bonnets Rouges in Brittany, it’s a rebellion which must be taken seriously. This is how the French Revolution broke out! Seven years before the Revolution, the ‘ecotax’ of that time was the wall built by the farmers-general. At the beginning of 1789, Necker decided to stop the building of the wall. Two days before July 14th, the barriers of Passy were set on fire! The ecotax symbol is historically weighty…”, 6 November 2013, http://www.europe1.fr/MediaCenter/Emissions/L-interview-verite-Thomas-Sotto/Videos/Bonnets-rouges-La-revolution-de-1789-a-commence-comme-ca-1699359/

[14] See http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2013/11/02/melenchon-contre-les-manifestants-de-quimper-pour-ceux-de-carhaix_3507171_823448.html

[15] Some historians wrote a column in the local newspaper Le Télégramme de Brest in order to condemn the anti-tax usurpation of the 17th century social uprising forewarning the French Revolution.

[16] See Morvan (2013). The president of the Institut de Locarn, Alain Glon, notably declared “We are going down a slope. The locomotives being at rest, we’ll see if the wagons take the lead!…In a country where the police superintendents are made into ‘préfets’, our real problem is France!”.

[17] One can, for example, see this in the ongoing refusal to organize a referendum on the inclusion of the Loire Atlantique département in the Brittany region.

[18] See http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/vincent-presumey/031113/la-bretagne-cest-la-france

[19] On 2 November in Carhaix, CGT and CFDT as well as the Front de Gauche called for a parallel (overwhelmingly perceived as rival) demonstration. These unions demonstrated again on 23 November, with slightly better success in terms of attendance.

[20] For example, the bishop of Vannes wrote on his diocese website: “Last Saturday, violent confrontations occurred in Finistère between protesters and the police force, at the cost of severely injured persons to which we declare our solidarity and wishes for a quick recovery. I encourage all Bretons to practically express their solidarity towards these workers threatened by insecurity and unemployment.” http://www.vannes.catholique.fr/index.php?module=cms&action=get&id=8

[21] I don’t want to give the impression that Bretons are unanimously demonstrating against the écotaxe. For example, a very famous and legitimate local environmental NGO (Eau et Rivières de Bretagne) says: “Riding with shameful cynicism on the wave of social desperation, some farm organizations and a few elected officials now openly demand a further weaken of environmental regulations as a means to get Brittany out of these crises.” http://www.eau-et-rivieres.asso.fr/index.php?47/896

[22] The public-private partnership signed between the previous government and company Écomouv’ is now sunder suspicion. See http://www.europe1.fr/Politique/Ecomouv-un-contrat-de-droite-et-de-gauche-1698721/

[23] See http://www.insee.fr/fr/regions/nord-pas-de-calais/default.asp?page=themes/ouvrages/dev_durable/DVA0_04.htm

[24] See http://www.bfmtv.com/economie/bruxelles-donne-feu-vert-a-laide-aux-volaillers-bretons-652126.html

[25] The Duchess’ prenuptial agreement specified that “there will be no be excise tax in my land”. This is nowadays invoked to justify free access to the highways built in the 1960s, as well as in opposition to the ecotax. See, for example, this pro-Bonnets Rouge speech by the Bishop of Vannes: http://www.breizh-info.com/2681/actualites-sociales/leveque-vannes-soutient-revolte-bonnets-rouges/

References

Agnew J (2001) Regions in revolt. Progress in Human Geography 25(1):103-110

Lebras H and Todd E (2013) Le mystere français. Paris: Seuil

Morvan F (2013) Bonnets rouges: des dérives autonomistes derrière les revendications sociales. Le Monde 13 November

Nicolas J (2002) La Rébellion française: Mouvements populaires et conscience sociale (1661-1789). Paris: Seuil

Siegfried A (1913) Tableau politique de la France de l’Ouest sous la Troisième République. Paris: A. Colin

One comment on “Intervention – ‘Brittany topsy-turvy: The Bonnets Rouges movement’

  1. Pingback: In Support Of A Reunited Brittany | An Sionnach Fionn

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