FRANCE IS PROBABLY the country with the longest history of riots, public protests and civil disobedience. The country, reputed for a culture dating back to over five centuries, has been known to influence public decisions and government policies through civil unrest, including, rioting, strikes, violent labour disputes, or minor insurrections. The French are therefore no strangers to taking to the streets to press home their demands. For more than two centuries ago since the Revolution more than two centuries, burning barricades and street protests have been a feature of French political life. During the 1789 Revolution that began with the storming of the Bastille, French workers rioted over taxes, economic inequality and perceptions that the country’s rulers were out of touch.
Published four years after the Revolution erupted, the 1793 constitution safeguarded a “right to insurrection” against any government that was not listening to the people. Although, for so long, that constitution has ceased to be in force, the idea it supported, is still in force. This is somehow encouraged by the fact that protests and street demonstrations get results, as observed by Olivier Cahn, a professor at the University of Tours, in an attempt to explain why the tradition has taken root in France. Although these are seen as a disruption of peaceful social environment, the French people have become used to them and are considered the last resort when they think it becomes necessary.
Over the years, the protesters have had their say and their way at the same time. In many instances, they have successfully forced government’s hands and caused a change of government policies in some definite ways. As recently as about fifty years ago, the momentous May 1968 protests which rocked French society – and left several dead – forced the government to raise the minimum wage by a third. Erik Neveu, a sociologist at the Sciences Po Rennes University, tried to put the recent twists in French protests in perspective. “There is a growing movement which wants more violent methods than those led by the unions, which are considered a bit humdrum,” he said. That may explain in part why public support for the burgeoning “Yellow Vest” movement has remained fairly high despite its increasing violence as the perpetrators have vowed to cause widespread disruption.
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Les Gilets Jaunes or “the Yellow Vests,” which is the name given to the rioters in France since 2018, because of the uniform they wore while protesting, marked their one year of weekend rampages a couple of days ago. Can it be rightly said then that France has successfully exported a culture that, in recent times, has been spreading like wild bushfire? What of the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across much of the Islamic world in the early 2010s? Because some of the countries involved have cultural, language and strong colonial links with France, the reason for their adoption of the ‘power of the street’ may not be far-fetched.
Their impacts have been tremendous and remarkable as they have brought down regimes, claimed the lives of many during rioting or thereafter and have become contagious in influence, made more popular and appealing by the rising popularity and use of modern information and communication technologies. A strong link has been established between the increasing access to social media which has been heralded as the driving force behind the swift spread of revolution throughout the world. The confidentiality, anonymity and convenience offered by the increasingly important channel of communication enhanced the spread of news about the Arab Spring and triggered new protests in response to success stories shared from those taking place in other countries. People elsewhere were more emboldened to demand for change. What began in response to oppressive regimes and a low standard of living, starting with protests in Tunisia, quickly spread to other countries in the Arab world.
The effects of the Tunisian Revolution spread strongly to five other countries. Thus, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen caught the contagion, with riots, insurgencies, civil wars or consequential regime change. In a space of about one month, Tunisia’s strongman ruler Ben Ali fled for exile to Saudi Arabia and the government of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ruler for nearly 30 years, was also overthrown. Syria and Yemen have been in the throes of war, with their economies infrastructure and social lives in ruins since then. The countries of the Arab world that have earlier got used to totalitarian rulers began to ask for pluralistic and participatory governments. The refusal of Syria’s Al-Assad to allow this change was at the root of the protracted and on-going war in Syria, which has provided a breeding ground for insurgents and violent religious bigots such as the Islamic State (IS).
As the world presses on in the demand for free expression of speech, freedom of information, inclusive government, accountability and aversion for only strong men in power, the challenge of building strong institutions stares the people in the face. However, the spread of street protests and civil disobedience continues in countries of Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. The Hong Kong Saturday protests have lasted beyond five months since midway into 2019, with the result leading to a resounding victory for the pro-democracy activists and contestants in the last weekend election. The protests, which began in response to an objectionable bill that was contemplated for passage into law, subsequently broadened its reasons. The “Extradition Bill” which, was initially suspended, but was later rescinded by Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong Chief Executive, sparked the original protest. The delay in withdrawing the bill did untold damage to the cause of the China’s totalitarian influence that was being surreptitiously extended to Hong Kong. The streets won, at least temporarily, as people-oriented representatives are expected to be in the majority in Hong Kong parliament, henceforth.
Social, political and economic problems drive the people to the streets. Earlier in the year, Venezuela, an oil rich South American country, was almost brought to a standstill by a flurry of protests against the quasi-communist regime of Nicholas Maduro. At a point, the country had two leaders – Nicholas Maduro and Juan Guaido – laying claim to the leadership at the same time, amidst widespread squalor, violence, infrastructural challenges and worsening economy. Although the protests have reduced in prominence and frequency, the people have sent a strong message that the time for the failed sit-tight government was up. Although Maduro has not been unseated, the government has been significantly rattled. Although Ivan Duqué, an elitist president of Colombia, has not been sent packing, the spread of protests by over 200,000 people in the past couple of weeks has forced him to promise some social reforms. His conservative government heard the message from the streets.
The cost of protests could be enormous, in the immediate or in the aftermath. The repressive regime in Iran was obviously unprepared for what it got when it raised the price of petroleum in the past few weeks. The spontaneous reactions out in the street have stretched the regime’s capacity to a limit with death toll topping a hundred, even though the government argued that the number was less. But a jittery Iranian government has hurriedly promised palliative packages to assuage the populace. Whether that would keep the protesters silent remains to be seen. In the neighbouring Iraq, the protests against government considered incompetent are already yielding results, with some key figures offering to resign. Earlier on in October, in Lebanon, Saad Hariri offered to resign as prime minister to placate the rampaging Lebanese populace. Chile, that country on the western fringe of South America, has a lot of losses to count on the heels of street protests. In a country where protests are almost becoming a norm, there is so much to give up for agitation against a government that is losing favour with the populace. Although President Sebastian Pinera still remains in office, Chile has lost two great opportunities, namely the November’s APEC trade summit and the COP25 UN climate conference in December, now shifted to Spain. In Bolivia, public outrage against the complaints of widespread manipulation of a recent election result led to insurrection that drove Evo Morales, the country’s leader for so many years into exile in Mexico a few weeks ago.
In 2019 alone in Africa, two strongmen, sit-tight political leaders and heads of governments have been successfully driven out of office by popular street protests, happening at about the same time. Despite the many lives lost on the streets by the protesters, Sudan populace refused to be browbeaten by the high-handedness of the totalitarian Omar al-Bashir until he bowed out in shame. The 82 year old Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who still clung to power six years after suffering stroke, was forced to resign in April 2019 following relentless street protests by the Algerians. The street prevailed, thus signalling an end to the influence of authoritarian rulers in Africa. Those who think repression, dictatorship and insensitivity to the people’s plights will always work should now have a rethink. The power of the streets may seem fleeting and the base uncoordinated. It is proving even more effective. Real leaders in Africa should learn and no longer force their will on the people. Rather, they should take useful lessons from other countries that resisted the people and pushed them to the street. The results have been uniformly effective. The people have been having their say and their say.