Bastille Day and the French Tradition of Protest

Today is Bastille Day, sort of the French equivalent to the Fourth of July, as it commemorates the country’s eventual development into one of history’s earliest constitutional republics.

Storming of the Bastille - Wikipedia

The name comes from a medieval prison where political prisoners were held by the royal government for arbitrary reasons and without a chance to appeal. For over a thousand years, France had maintained one of the world’s most authoritarian and hierarchical regimes, and the last place that ideals such as liberty and civic rights would emerge (the U.S. had the advantage of being a much younger place, and from inheriting the fairly liberal traditions of the U.K., whose monarchy was already weak by the 18th century).

Bastille became a symbol of this oppressive tradition, and hence it was targeted by the people of Paris on July 14, 1789, after they grew fed up with high taxes (that concentrated on the poor) and famine. While only seven prisoners were held in Bastille that day, the revolt was hugely symbolic of liberation of the French public, which continues to be a central part of France’s core ideals—represented by its three-color flag and official motto—of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for all.

As French officials in the capital cowered before these newly empowered peasants, popular momentum built up into the French Revolution, which took on both the powerful monarchy and literally all of Europe (whose monarchies felt threatened by the fall of their principal kingdom). While the revolution descended into barbarism and bloodshed, and was eventually put down, the ideals that emerged remained in French hearts and minds, precipitating the reemergence of the republic in the late 19th century.

In fact, France’s well known tradition of protests and civil disobedience, which was on full display just a few months ago, can be traced back to this action.

Heck, this year’s Bastille Day was commemorated with officials honors and higher wages for essential workers—following months of agitation and negotiation with unions and workers.

This is par for the course in France, which has about 10 political marches every day.

There is even an “unofficial working manual” for French demonstrations, which is observed by all sides, including the government. (Those who fail to observe these rules are ostracized as casseurs or “smashers”.)

The protesters—who are generally up of a wide variety of folks, including steelworkers, winegrowers, students, lawyers, and chefs—would agree to an itinerary, provide their own security staff, and march on the agreed route. They would throw a few harmless objects police, usually for symbolic purposes; the police would respond, usually halfheartedly, with tear gas or baton charges.

The usual doctrine of French riot police is to stand back and protect the biggest public buildings. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades are used to keep the crowds at bay—and on their declared routes. Riot police are trained to act only in groups and only on direct orders; in theory, they have no right of individual action or initiative. They are supposed to aim their nonlethal weapons below the waist and not use stun grenades in densely packed crowds.

Occasionally, more radical protests do emerge, resulting in serious scuffles or brawls; for their part, French riot police are known for lacking deescalation techniques. But overall sentiment underpinning these practices—that demonstrations and popular assembly are core to both political and social culture—remain robust and admirable.

Anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution

A year ago today, the people of Egypt engaged in an unprecedented mass demonstration, which only 18 days later toppled their despot after three decades of rule. It’s hard to believe that it has been a year already. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the world was captivated by the courage and perseverance of the Egyptian people as they stood against certain death in the name of freedom and opportunity.

Even I became swept up in the hope and excitement, in spite of the intuitive caution that was tempered by my studies in political science and international relations. Enthusiastic as I was, I was well-aware of the mixed track record of many revolutions throughout history, especially in the long term. I knew bringing down an oppressive regime, difficult as it is, was still the easiest part of any sort of sociopolitical change. I knew enough about the political, social, and religious dynamics of Egypt to know that many obstacles would remain to meaningful democratic reform. However romantic and admirable the efforts of Egypt’s brave people, I knew – and still know – that they have a tough road ahead of them.
Of course, few people thought that Egypt would make significant progress within a year, or even several years. You don’t have to be steeped in politics and history to know that it takes a long time to go from stifling oppression, to a thriving and free society. It takes a while for any community to change, much less one of nearly 90 million people. No matter how ingenious and sincere your leaders, or how enduring and enterprising your people, it’ll take a lot of work to build a positive future for your nation.
The gains will be tenuous for some time, as the old guard and its former beneficiaries remain (we have a tendency to think that the people we overthrow, and their backers, simply dissipate upon losing power). Old ways of thinking, hardened by generations of stagnation and the suppression of free speech, will need to be overcome. Trust and cooperation, weakened through the decades of state surveillance by a network of informants, will need to be built up. The public, which has never had any sort of real voice in how they’re governed, will need to develop a sense of political identity. I haven’t even gotten to how you bring everyone together to hammer out a collective vision in the first place. 
Everything I’m saying could just as well apply to the other participants of the Arab Spring, as well as other revolutions past and present. Forging a consensus among a diverse body politic, making a better political system, and addressing a myriad of social ills – these are also the functions of a free and democratic society. It takes the same sort of mentality and dedication to make such a system as it is to run it. Any kind of change, incremental or revolutionary, is a constant process. American society is still trying to improve and rectify its various political and legal problems despite its established democratic traditions (which from the start were mired with imperfections that took some time to rectify, such as slavery). Even the most prosperous and stable of nations has to be ever-vigilant in maintaining and refining its people’s wellbeing, be it civilly, legally, politically, or economically. Egypt may be farther behind then most of the developed world in this regard, but it’s very similar as far as having to endure the same kind of constant challenges and reforms, albeit to varying degrees.
Revolutions never really end, and progress is always an incomplete enterprise.
Despite my cautious optimism, I’m confident that Egypt will get through the considerable obstacles before it. All I can do from my position is hope. Many Egyptians have understandably expressed ambivalence about their nation’s circumstances since the revolution: the military is still in control, and the hated state of emergency laws that underpinned decades of oppression still remain in place (albeit to a lesser extent then they once were). There are mounting concerns over the deteriorating economy, persistent corruption, sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims, and a political struggle between secularists and Islamists; the latter have recently won parliamentary majority, to the consternation of many Western and Egyptian liberals who worry about their democratic credentials. The last several months have seen repeated clashes between young protestors and the state, invoking an unsettling déjà vu. And women remain marginal within the political process and feel forgotten in their role in the revolution.
Still, tangible changes have transpired despite this grim picture. A greater sense of accomplishment and possibility is still palpable among even pessimistic Egyptians. A glass-half-full outlook would suggest that such high standards for change are evidence of the people’s sense of democratic entitlement – they’re no longer the dispirited and broken people that the former regime tried to keep down. They’re going against a 7,000-year history devoid of representative government but rich in culture and spirit, and against all odds they led a historically unprecedented popular uprising within two-and-a-half weeks just one year ago. They just need more time. And hope.

Russians Rally in Defiance of Government

On December 4th, Russia held elections for the lower house of its legislature, the State Duma (akin to the US’s House of Representatives or the UK’s House of Commons). As typical of the nation’s grimy politics, there was a  widespread perception – by domestic and foreign observers alike – that the process was rigged in favor of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, which has become almost inseparable from the state.

Despite this fraud, United Russia still received far fewer votes than in previous elections, which suggested that Russians were starting to tire of the corruption and autocracy that has defined Putin’s regime. Although not President, he is widely considered to be the true ruler of Russia, assisted by a network of thugs and lackeys that have previously kept a lid on any criticism or dissent. A few weeks prior to the elections, Putin had even announced his intention to run for President again, leading to some grumbles but little surprise.

So few people in or out of Russia expected the Russians to take to the streets in any meaningful way, much less in such great numbers. As the New York Times reports:

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow on Saturday shouting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” forcing the Kremlin to confront a level of public discontent that has not been seen here since Vladimir V. Putin first became president 12 years ago.

The crowd overflowed from a central city square, forcing stragglers to climb trees or watch from the opposite riverbank. “We exist!” they chanted. “We exist!”

The demonstration marked what opposition leaders hope will be a watershed moment, ending years of quiet acceptance of the political consolidation Mr. Putin introduced. The leaders understood that for a moment they, not the Kremlin, were dictating the political agenda, and seemed intent on leveraging it, promising to gather an even larger crowd again on Dec. 24.

Saturday’s rally served to build their confidence as it united liberals, nationalists and Communists. The event was too large to be edited out of the evening news, which does not ordinarily report on criticism of Mr. Putin And it was accompanied by dozens of smaller rallies across Russia’s nine time zones, with a crowd of 3,000 reported in Tomsk, and 7,000 in St. Petersburg, the police said.

Indeed, some sources have claimed the protests to be the largest since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russian police estimate the demonstration’s numbers in Moscow alone are around 25,ooo, with some activists claiming anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 participants. In Russia’s second city, Saint Petersburg, there are another 10,000 demonstrators, and rallies of various size are taking place in at least 88 more towns and cities throughout the country.
These all began as a coordinated and but largely spontaneous response to the electoral fraud and Putin’s consolidation of power, and there seemed to be no clear point other than expressing angst and indignation (as most such grassroots movements begin).
But the rallies have quickly escalated in their demands and grievances, including, as the Guardian reports:

1. Freedom for political prisoners

2. Annulment of the election results

3. The resignation of Vladimir Churov, head of the election commission, and an official investigation of vote fraud

4. Registration of the opposition parties and new democratic legislation on parties and elections

5. New democratic and open elections

This looks like the beginning of a full-fledged political movement, with comparisons to the recent Arab Spring abounding. Police have already arrested over a 1,000 demonstrators in Moscow alone, and Putin has responded by inciting his own pro-government factions to counter-protest in his favor (including the Nashi, a thuggish youth group compared to the Hitler Youth). Interestingly, a smaller number of people are have been detained in connection to these rallies than in previous ones – does that suggest sympathy on part of the police?

The domestic media, being largely state controlled, has of course avoided any meaningful mention of this event, not that it’s made much difference: as the Times noted, the savvy use of social media, in conjunction with the sheer scale of the protests, have made such sanctioned ignorance ineffective.

Dozens of Russian public figures – from celebrities to activists to politicians – have addressed the crowds and showed support. The Russian diaspora is starting to join in as well. Protesters have already taken on a symbol for their cause, the white ribbon, which is adorning cars, clothes, and other objects, and is the adopted motif of online protest sites (I’ve always said that a symbol is a significant sign of any movement’s maturity, especially since such things are much harder to kill off or suppress).

The movement has already made clear that if it’s demands are not met, follow-up protests will be scheduled for December 24th (alluding to their expectation that they’ll probably be broken up before then). Needless to say, I’ll be watching pretty close to see where this is going to go. It’s only been a couple of days, and already things seem to be escalating. Putin, though still pretty popular, has never faced anything on this scale or organization before , so who knows how he’ll react. The government is unlikely to acquiesce, however, and apparently doesn’t take the movement too seriously – so a confrontation of some kind is pretty much inevitable.

As a Russophile with a good amount of knowledge on the country (so I’d like to think), I’m in some ways surprised, in others way not. Russia has a history of popular revolts, revolutions, and popular movements, dating back to the first Tsars. At the same time, however, modern Russia has long been seen as a bleak and cynical place, where people became grudgingly complacent with what they felt was politics as usual. In fact, I had just read a recent report on Russia by The Economist, which found high levels of apathy, social exclusion, and pessimism all around, especially about the country’s future (to the extent that a large number of Russians expressed an interest in leaving; this may explain the high rate of brain drain and the low birthrate).

So the Russians have surprised everyone in breaking out of their bleak indifference and showing that they do indeed have a stake in their country’s future. While it’s too soon to call this a revolution or a “Russian Spring,” it may hopefully turn out to have some meaningful political impact, however dim the prospects are given the track-record. The negative precedent for positive change hasn’t yet dampened even the famously irreverent Russians.

Aleksei Navalny, a popular blogger who has helped mobilize young Russians over the past year, sent an address from the prison where he is serving a 15-day sentence for resisting the police. Mr. Navalny was arrested Monday night after the first of three demonstrations.

“Everyone has the single most powerful weapon that we need — dignity, the feeling of self-respect,” said the address, which was read by a journalist, Oleg Kashin. “It’s impossible to beat and arrest hundreds of thousands, millions. We have not even been intimidated. For some time, we were simply convinced that the life of toads and rats, the life of mute cattle, was the only way to win the reward of stability and economic growth.”

“We are not cattle or slaves,” he said. “We have voices and votes and we have the power to uphold them.”

The 99 Percent Goes Global

The Occupy Wall Street movement has spread across the world, and not just through protests and demonstrations It’s iconic “99%” slogan -representing the inequalities between the masses and the elite (the 1% as it were) – has become viral across many nations, including those that lack any comparable issues. Again, this slideshow is courtesy of Foreign Policy.

The World’s 99 Percent 

It’s remarkable how such social and political phenomenon can quickly become ubiquitous across the world, managing to transcend linguistic, cultural, and political barriers. It’s a testimony not only to the great advances in technology – namely telecommunications, mass media, and the internet – but to a development of global consciousness. While nationalism, fundamentalism, and parochialism remain strong or even resurgent in many societies, there is no denying a steady –  if not often tenuous – growth in a sense of global community. Our cause is their cause, and visa versa.

On a less idealistic note, it may also represent a growing tendency to for things to go viral or become memes without any thought. Many people take hold of ideas, soundbites, and claims that sound catchy or applicable, but are otherwise meaningless. It’s just another manifestation of the modern-age consumerism and conformity – a sort of herd mentality that allows anything that seems appealing enough to take hold of our minds and spread like wildfire.

I’m not saying that this is the case with the OWS movement and it’s various affiliates, merely that it reminds me of the various ways in which political, social, and religious ideas can now reach a scale that was previously untenable. Anything can be a world-wide paradigm if it the dynamics are right – which can be a good or a bad thing depending on which side of said paradigm you’re on.