DEMONSTRATIONS.WORKERS' RIGHTS, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, AND THE NEW FORMS OF PROTEST
WORLD WAR I AND ITS AFTERMATH
FRANCE, AN EXCEPTION TO THE RULE
PROTESTS IN THE 1960S AND BEYOND
The taking over of public space by religious or social groups or by crowds of rioters and insurrectionists is a traditional form of collective expression and protest. Street demonstrations, which occur more in some countries than in others, are usually organized by religious or social groups and are to be distinguished from riots and mob assemblies, in more than one way. The street protests typical of mobs are spontaneous, seeking immediate redress for their causes and objectives (which are often confused). As a result, they often entail violence. Conversely, demonstrations that avoid violence (or at least attempt to do so) and express demands while asserting a group's identity allow time for politics to occur. Immediacy and urgency give way to a necessary examination of available options. Such demonstrations presuppose the existence of parties that possess if not a strategy then at least a capacity to control a crowd and impose rules that reflect what is particular to crowd behavior. They arise, therefore, only with the emergence and support of parliamentary democracies. However, they do not exclude the possible resurgence of violent protest, for example, the riots that took place in certain French suburbs in November 2005.
The decision to stage joint struggles on 1 May 1889 and on following days for the eight-hour workday constituted an opportunity to expand the forms that protests could take and set the scene for demonstrations in the twentieth century. These types of protests varied by country: large demonstrations in the heart of London in 1890; ritualized processions in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Belgium, sometimes occurring in the rural areas; and in France the lodging of petitions with public authorities. Such protests were often better tolerated than other practices and constituted an opportunity to learn the methods of orderly public procession—for demonstrators and police alike. Parades by organizations, consecration of flags, and protests in support of strikes (by and for miners in particular) enjoyed a similar level of tolerance, with the same results.
In 1886 Belgian demonstrators helped obtain universal suffrage. Demonstrations to that same end were organized in Finland (1904–1906); Sweden, Saxony, Hamburg, and Austria (1905–1906); and then in Prussia (1908–1910). Since these protesters were demanding the rights of full citizens, they strove to evince their respectability during the orderly processions by dressing in their Sunday best (as had those who had taken part in suffrage demonstrations in France on the eve of the Revolution of 1848). After universal suffrage was achieved, the movements disappeared because they were not viewed as an alternative to voting. They were at times prohibited as a possible threat to public order but not because they were deemed illegitimate.
Things appeared in a different light in France, however, where universal suffrage was granted in 1848. The Third Republic (1871–1940) tended to view as illegitimate any organization or movement that stood between voting citizens and their elected officials. Universal suffrage was considered the sole legitimate expression of the sovereign people, the only way to be heard by government authorities. Therefore, the public authorities were suspicious of the movements that sought to make themselves heard through demonstrative means. This suspicion, which persisted for some time, was particularly acute toward "street movements," which had made and unmade regimes in France since the Revolution of 1789. The Third Republic therefore did not include the right to assembly among the democratic liberties it guaranteed in the 1880s, unlike those countries where freedom of assembly was more easily conceded, precisely because street protests did not compete with universal suffrage, which was introduced later, and did not have the same symbolic charge. The successive constitutions of the French Republics recognized the citizen's right to "speak his mind" but without once postulating freedom of assembly as the term is used today. Tolerance of public demonstrations in France depended on the judgment of local mayors. In Italy, despite the fact that universal suffrage arrived rather late, tolerance of public demonstrations similarly depended on local mayors.
Over time, public demonstrations, whether urban or rural, whether marches or group assemblies, multiplied, making specific demands or calling for group recognition at the local, national, or transnational level. And although fueled by the energy of many different actors, demonstrations were increasingly led by workers' organizations to address their issues.
The unifying symbols behind the workers' movement spread from one country to another. When Paris mobilized in force against war beginning in 1912, it borrowed from London and Berlin the model of tolerating assemblies on different rostrums in public parks. National approaches were also taking shape everywhere, with explicit or implicit rules and rituals that owed their specificity to each country's laws, unique methods for maintaining public order, distinct cultural and historical crosscurrents, and the relationships pertaining between its political culture and the army and organized religion. These approaches came to represent a unifying framework for all forms of demonstrations held within a specific country, above and beyond the diversity of their actors and objectives.
The political role played by demonstrations became markedly more diverse after 1918. In the parliamentary democracies of northern and western Europe, they became permanently entrenched as ritualized modes of expression for established groups, taking on a festive atmosphere that celebrated group identity. Or they served to support strikes, which did not always rule out the use of violence. They had no political autonomy. In the crisis-ridden regimes of Italy (immediately following World War I) and Weimar Germany (for a longer period of time), demonstrations devolved into violence. But the victory of the Fascist and Nazi regimes signaled the disappearance of all but official parades. (Street action would also lead to the downfall of Eastern European communist regimes in 1989.) The disappearance of these totalitarian regimes restored to the demonstration its conventional functions.
In France, demonstrations have long had very complex characteristics. Although demonstrations were frequent there from the turn of the twentieth century on, despite the fact that they were not fully legalized until 1935, they played no role whatsoever in the rise and fall of successive regimes in 1940, 1944, and 1958. But they were a major component in the crises plaguing the dominant political systems in February 1934 and May 1968. In both instances, widespread demonstrations were the instigating factor in the resulting political crises, as well as one of the means by which the crises were overcome. Indeed, it was those forces capable of mobilizing people in the streets in the name of the Republic's values (antifascist in 1934, Gaullist in 1968) that prevailed in both situations and determined the political nature of the outcome. They did so by implicitly evoking the "right" to insurrection, already firmly recognized in the nation's history and imagination. Demonstrations therefore appear in this light as one of the modes of consent that France has developed to navigate a history marked by the insurmountable fracture of 1793. Regimes in the twentieth century were no longer toppled by street protests. Instead, major crises, constituted in large part by mass demonstrations, were resolved within the regime's existing framework. The management of a crisis via demonstrations became a sign of the limits each political force sought to impose upon itself. The act of demonstrating signified that struggle would take place in the domain of hegemonic mastery rather than that of violence, by signaling adherence to constitutive social codes and thereby avoiding crises of regime change.
This status for the demonstration was de facto modified in the 1980s by the combined effects of the Fifth Republic's constitution and the new constellation of political and social forces arrayed by the rise to power of France's Socialist Party leader François Mitterrand. Exponentially increasing numbers of demonstrations were frequently accompanied by specific demands by delegations, usually at the national level, and became a customary mode of action designed to intervene directly in public policy. Some of these protests were aimed at specific laws under consideration or at cabinet-level secretaries and ministers. Almost all of them prevailed over the incendiary legislation and even over the minister responsible for introducing it (for instance, the right-wing demonstrations in 1984 against the Savary Law intended to undermine private sector education, or the union protests in 1995 against the Juppé plan for retirement pension reform). What was new, when compared with the preceding decades, was that these demonstrations were not considered political crises caused by the governments in question. Instead, because they were allowed to take place, they surreptitiously came to represent a kind of referendum instigated by the populace rather than by a specific legislator. As such, they were furtively added to the list of constitutional liberties, on the condition that they not disturb the peace, and were better tolerated inasmuch as they came to appear as an available option for peacefully managing social or urban crises, just as they had previously managed political ones. Demonstrations became one phase in the process of restoring public order—a means to lower the level of violence.
From the 1960s on, transnational movements acting through street mobilization assumed new forms, often borrowed from the battery of tools developed in North America. They converged around specific issues, such as the antinuclear movement and the fight against the Vietnam War, which were preludes to the protests of May 1968. This crisis period placed unusual demands upon the methods of street protest (e.g., the student barricades in Paris); after the crisis passed, new movements, focused on environmental and social issues, generated previously unknown forms of mobilization, such as ACT UP's "Die-Ins," gay pride activities, and "technoparades." Antiglobalization protesters later took up the same tactics, redefining the space and time of protests and the methods as well. International gatherings and the globalization of images via the Web and the news media have played a role in coordinating events worldwide (witness the global protest day against the war in Iraq in February 2003) and in diffusing shared visual and audio cues.
In those countries where the tradition of using public space for political ends has long been weak and constricted by the legalistic organizations of the majority party, these initiatives have produced spectacular effects, fueled by the energies of organizations devoted to the antiglobalization movement, such as the Direct Action Network in the United States and Reclaim the Streets in the United Kingdom, which have garnered widespread mobilizations and other "street parties" that represent a radical break with British militant traditions. Nothing of the sort has occurred in France, where the emergence of new means of direct action has been hindered by an atmosphere overly steeped in history (and older traditions of protest). Inversely, in other countries, the resurgence of the extreme Right and the rise in terrorism after 2000 has led some governments to resort to loyalist demonstrations, met by massive counterdemonstrations in the case of the war in Iraq. Of one point, however, we can be certain. National modes of expression have yet to disappear.
Tarrow, Sidney. Power in Movement: Social Movements, Collective Action, and Politics. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.
Tartakowsky, Danielle. Le pouvoir est dans la rue: Crises politiques et manifestations en France. Paris, 1998.