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What Yellow Vest Riots Teach Us

December 9, 2018

We should not be surprised by “Yellow Vest” riots in France. Modern France was shaped by the violence that occurred in 1789 and culminated in “The Terror” that commenced in 1793. Alexis de Tocqueville in The Old Regime and the French Revolution cites key historical dates and events that point toward and explain the outpouring of violence then and now.

He recalls the chaos caused by the captivity of King John at the battle of Poitiers in 1356 that led to the insurrection of peasants in 1358. That peasant insurrection was called the Jacquerie because the nobility commonly referred to any peasant as Jacques, or Jacques Bonhomme

Another insurrection occurred in 1382 in response to the imposition of taxes. That violence was called Mailotins because of iron mallots that the mob confiscated and used to attack business owners, government officials and money lenders.

The year 1388 was marked by the madness of Charles VI (1368-1422) and the disorders of his rule. He was followed by the reign of King Charles VII who was permitted to impose a tax without the people’s consent. Tocqueville writes, “…on that fateful day that the seeds were sown of almost all the vices and abuses which led to the violent downfall of the old régime.”

In 1591 a public uprising in Paris against the temporizing policies of Henry III is called the Council of the Sixteens. The head of the Catholic League led representatives of the sixteen quartiers of Paris who arrested and executed three magistrates of the Parlement of Paris.

In 1648 the French nobility engaged in a last attempt in a series of wars, called the Fronde, to recover privileges usurped by French monarchs. Yet again, in 1685, Louis XIV disturbed civic order by arbitrarily placing dragoons in Protestant households as part of his persecution of  the Huguenots.

In 1701, the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) following the death of Charles II of Spain threatened the balance of power in Europe and led to war between the French and an alliance of  England, the Dutch Republic and Austria. Though the power of Louis XIV was challenged, the King secured the borders of France and continued his policy of centralization of state power.

In 1777, René Nicolas de Maupeou, Chancellor of France, carrying out Louis XVI’s reforms abolished the system of Parlements, or regional courts. Though the French had felt oppressed by the Parlements, with their abolition, Tocqueville writes, “had fallen the last barrier still capable of holding in check the monarch’s absolute power.”

If there is one thing we learn from Tocqueville’s historical narrative, we learn that centralization of the power of the state destroys the mores and culture of nations. That is something that Americans today should understand is happening to us.



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