‘Do you hear the people sing?’: A History of Civil Unrest in France 

Written by Ione Gildroy

Hundreds of thousands of workers in the UK have been on strike recently, including nurses, university staff, civil servants and rail workers. Most are striking in demand for more pay, in line with inflation. 

Across the channel, in France, there is currently a similar situation. France is in the midst of a period of extensive strikes in opposition to President Macron’s plan to raise the pension age from 62 to 64, which is the EU average. On Tuesday 7 February, 757,000 people took part in more than 200 street demonstrations. On 19 January, one million people took to the streets to protest. As in the UK, the people on strike include teachers and transport workers, but also students, who say they are fighting for their futures. 

This isn’t especially unusual for France, a country which is subject to a global stereotype of constant striking. SNCF, France’s national state-owned railway company, have, for example, been on strike every year since 1947. The most notable recent series of civil unrest is the gilets jaunes protests, which began in 2018 and were originally motivated by rising fuel prices, a high cost of living and economic inequality. These protests continue to this day, and it is estimated that around 3 million people have taken part. 

So why do the French love to strike so much? And is it really a fair stereotype to continue to uphold? 

France is a country with a great history of strikes and revolutions. This long and tumultuous history started with the University of Paris strike in 1229 which lasted two years and led to eventual reform of the University.  

Several centuries of strikes, revolts and rebellions followed this, eventually culminating in the most famous civil unrest of all, the French Revolution. The French Revolution took place from 1789 to 1799 and overthrew the monarchy, established a republic and culminated in a Napoleonic dictatorship which brought its core ideas to Western Europe, many of which are still upheld today. 

There are many similarities between the acts of the French Revolution and the acts seen today in incidents of civil unrest across France. During the revolution, workers rioted over taxes, inequality, and perceptions that leaders were out of touch with the needs of the people. Although the French Revolution was successful in replacing the monarchy with a democracy, many of the issues that cause workers to protest seem to be the same. 

During gilets jaunes protests in 2018, some protesters near the Champs-Élysées in Paris graffitied messages such as “Macron = Louis 16” and “King Macron.” 

“If people compare Macron to Louis XVI, it’s a warning that he has hasn’t learned the lesson of history,” Michel Wieviorka, a French sociologist, told the Associated Press. “They don’t literally want his head, but it’s a strong message that they don’t feel listened to.” 

“You cannot understand France today without understanding the French revolution,” says Bruno Cautres, a political scientist. It is crucial, then, to really recognise the importance of the French Revolution in creating the systems of the France that exist today. 

The French Revolution resulted in the déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen de 1789 (the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), which has a major impact on the ideas and concepts of liberty and democracy which continue to this day in Europe and worldwide. The national motto of France, liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity), even has its origins in the French Revolution.  

The French Revolution led to the creation of modern political culture and ideas. Academics emphasise the impact of the revolution on governments and countries such as Italy, Switzerland and that of France itself. 

Frederick Artz says on the benefits that Italy received from the revolution: “For nearly two decades the Italians had the excellent codes of law, a fair system of taxation, a better economic situation, and more religious and intellectual toleration than they had known for centuries…. Everywhere old physical, economic, and intellectual barriers had been thrown down and the Italians had begun to be aware of a common nationality.” 

In France itself, the impacts were huge and long lasting. The downgrading of the Catholic Church, the introduction of legal equality, and the centralisation of French political power in Paris are three of the results of the revolution that remain central to French society today. Global calls for modification and changes to society were influenced by the success of the French Revolution.  

A similar revolution and uprising was the Paris Commune of 1871, when the Parisian lower classes revolted against the bourgeois ruling class, eventually taking over Paris and governing in a radical, progressive and socially democratic way. This was in response to the 3 ème République, the system of government in France from 1870 until 1940. Among other laws and rights that were established in this period was the right to strike, which remains a part of French law. 

The majority of the ideas of the Paris Commune are still established in French (and global) society today, such as the separation of church and state, the abolition of child labour and the movements of feminism, socialism and communism. It only ended when between 10,000 and 15,000 ‘Communards’ (members and supporters of the movement) were killed by the French National Army. Without the French Revolution, the Paris Commune would not have been able to happen. 

As the Communards were influenced by the French Revolution, so was Karl Marx influenced by the Paris Commune. Marx called the Paris Commune “the first dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marxist ideas were at the heart of Mai ’68, a period of intense civil unrest in France which lasted seven weeks and consisted of demonstrations, strikes and occupations of universities and factories. At the height of the unrest, the French economy ground to a halt and around 11 million workers were on strike, more than 22 percent of the population of France at the time.  

Similarly to the previous revolutions discussed here, Mai ’68 was triggered by a restlessness in France, anger at the government and bureaucracy, anger at the universities and anger at discrimination. 

Unlike some of the strikes that are taking place today in France and the UK, the mass walkouts and demonstrations of Mai ’68 were ultimately successful, as they achieved a 35 percent rise in the minimum wage and salary increases of 10 percent, as well as undermining the legitimacy of President Charles de Gaulle, who stood down the following year.  

These strikes nearly exploded into a full-scale revolution, and were undoubtedly inspired by the French Revolution, an example to the people that they can have an impact on the way that their country is governed. 

The strikes that are currently taking place in France and in the UK exist in the shadow of the strikes of Mai ’68 and the French Revolution. 

So yes, maybe the French strike more than other countries, but when the country has such a history of successful civil unrest, can you really blame them for continuing to do so? 


Artz, Frederick B. Reaction & Revolution: 1814–1832 (Rise of Modern Europe). 1934. 

France 24. “Aux barricades! France’s long history of revolt.” Accessed February 10, 2023. https:// http://www.france24.com/en/20181207-france-yellow-vest-protests-aux-barricades-long-history-revolt. 

Ledsom, Alex. “France Travel: Chaos Expected In Significant Week Of French Strikes.” Accessed February 10, 2023. https://www.thelocal.fr/20191219/why-do-the-french-strike-all-the-time-to-preserve-what-they-have/. 

Reed, Jessica. “Why do the French protest so much? You asked Google – here’s the answer.” Accessed February 10, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/10/why-do-the-french-protest-so-much-google

RFI. “Born to revolt: Why the French go on strike.” Accessed February 10, 2023. https://www.rfi.fr/en/france/20191228-born-revolt-why-french-go-strike-pension-reform-macron-union-afp-revolution-1789. 

Shorter, Edward, and Charles Tilly. “The Shape of Strikes in France, 1830-1960.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 13, no. 1 (1971): 60–86. http://www.jstor.org/stable/178198. 

The Local. “Why do the French strike all the time to preserve what they have.” Accessed February 10, 2023. https://www.thelocal.fr/20191219/why-do-the-french-strike-all-the-time-to-preserve-what-they-have/. 

Zagdoun, Benoît. “Est-il vrai que la France n’a pas connu une seule année sans grève à la SNCF depuis 1947?” Accessed February 10, 2023. https://www.francetvinfo.fr/economie/transports/sncf/greve-a-la-sncf/est-il-vrai-que-la-france-n-a-pas-connu-une-seule-annee-sans-greve-a-la-sncf-depuis-1947_3748597.html. 

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