Protests in France: The French Revolution and Modern Times

Protests in France

The French Revolution and Modern Times

By: Kate Conroy


When we think of protesting, we think of picket signs, violent cops, and people yelling and chanting. Speaking out against the government or any institution is a very modern idea. But when we think of protests in France, we first think of the French Revolution. The French Revolution was possibly the most important even in the history of France. Besides that, though, there are so many protests that have gone on that are significant to France’s history, protests that have happened quite recently and are even happening now. Students, workers, and citizens of all groups have risen against the French government for centuries, and riots are getting more and more popular. The French are known for their fiery personalities, so here we will explore some of their most outspoken moments.

Note: click on photos to enlarge them


The Storming of the Bastille (1789):

The Bastille has had many names and been used for many different things. It is mostly known as a prison, used by Louis XIV, who locked up anyone who opposed him, and then it became a state penitentiary. It was a symbol of tyranny in France. During the time of the French Revolution, ammunition and gunpowder were stored in the Bastille. The Gardes Français led a mob of nearly a thousand people to storm the Bastille. More of the rebels were killed than anyone else, but the Bastille surrendered, and the building was transformed into a symbol of victory.

(Dalberg-Acton )

(“Week” )

The French Revolution is taught in classrooms everywhere. There’s even a musical about it. But how much do you know about what’s been going on recently? Let’s discuss more current events.

Revolutionary Riots (1968):

In May of 1968, students and workers alike in Paris joined together to riot in the streets. It was started by a group of students,  but the protests became very popular. Many other groups of people joined in, with no specific ethnicity, culture, or age group making up the majority, which is why it was so revolutionary. The strikes grew to include ten million workers in France, at which point General Charles de Gaulle, a cruel president, sent the military to deal with it. Members of the Union Nationale des Etudiants de France (National Union of Students in France) and university professors marched to protest against the police. The students demanded that criminal charges be dropped of all those arrested. They wanted a complete reform of the bourgeois. The police weren’t the only violent ones, though. Students put up barricades and threw cobblestones at police officers. The riots died down by June, but they had a long-lasting impact.

(Poggioli May 13, 2008)

(DeFraia 2012)

Here, you can listen to NPR’s report on the riots. (Poggioli May 13, 2008)

(“1968: Workers join Paris student protest” )


University Reform (1986):

In 1986, students rioted again for three weeks. The protesting got so violent, over 200 students were injured, and one student, Malik Oussekine, age 22, was beaten and kicked in the head by police and died of a heart attack. Prime Minister Jaques Chiriac was forced to drop a very controversial university reform bill. Students were protesting because this reform bill would raise tuition by $125 per year, abolish state diplomas, and allow universities to be selective about its students, in opposition to its current system of operation in which a person with an academic diploma can attend any university he or she chooses.

(Nundy December 09, 1986)

Student Protests (1994):

In 1994, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur proposed a decree that allowed businesses to pay young employees less than the minimum wage. Students protested for three weeks, causing an uproar in a dozen French cities. 200,000 students marched in Paris and cities all over France for their rights to a proper paycheck. Eventually, Prime Minister Balladur was forced to back down, as the public was obviously not behind him, and elections were coming up in May of 1995.

(Riding 1994)

High School Reform and Labor Laws (2005 – 2006):

In 2005, education minister Francois Fillon dropped his education reform plan after student and teacher protests. President Jacques Chirac wanted to entirely turn around the education system.

The sign below reads “Stop, we will not be a youth sacrifice.”

(“History of French protests” 2006)

In 2006, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin proposed a decree that would allow businesses to fire young employees within the first two years of employment without reason. De Villepin argued that it would give employers flexibility, and it would encourage them to hire more young people. Protesters shouted, “Villepin, you’re toast — the students are in the streets!” These protests got very violent, especially in Rennes.

(“Students protest France’s new labor law” 2006)

(DeFraia 2012)

(“Students protest France’s new labor law” 2006)

(“In pictures: French protests” 2006)


Pension Reform (2010):

In 2010, President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and raise the age of eligibility for a full pension from 65 to 67 to save the government money. Workers went on strike in Paris, shutting down the Eiffel Tower and the Charles de Gaulle airport and Orly for days. Over 200 protests and marches were organised all over France.

(Keller 2010)

(Pratta )

In the end, Sarkozy won the battle, the pension reform bill was approved, and the retirement age and full pension age were raised by two years.

(Erlanger 2010)

Gay Rights (Current):

Over the past decade or so, gay rights has been a very controversial topic. Very recently, protests in France have been particularly prominent.

(“Femen stages topless gay rights protest in Vatican (PHOTOS)” 2013)

As of Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013, France is the fourteenth country and the most highly populated country to legalize gay marriage.

“We believe that the first weddings will be beautiful and that they’ll bring a breeze of joy, and that those who are opposed to them today will surely be confounded when they are overcome with the happiness of the newlyweds and the families,” said Justice Minister Christiane Taubira.

(Hinnat et al. 2013)

(“Gay marriage in,” April 24 2013)


Here is a video showing a same-sex couple raising a child versus parents who are against same-sex marriage. (Link will open in a new window/tab)

Homophobic demonstrators have shown tendencies of violence, and many protestors were arrested. One man, Wilfred de Bruijn, was severely beaten when seen walking with his partner, and he posted a disturbing photo of his wounds, titling it, “The Face of Homophobia”.

(Erlanger et al. 2013)


The French have had so many instances of major protests throughout the years. Is the problem in the government, or is it the fiery personalities of the people? In most recent cases, it seems that the government has made changes that they thought people would like, but they turned out to be opposed to them. The government proposed a lot of laws that were meant to encourage employers to hire young people, but they made things worse for the new employees. Back in the times of the French Revolution, the government was clearly corrupt. Although it’s a controversial subject, I think that with France’s acceptance of gay rights, their government is clearly one of the better ones in today’s world.


The Storming of the Bastille:

Dalberg-Acton, John. Lectures on the French Revolution. London: Batoche Books, 1999. eBook.

“Picture Past: July 14, 1789, storming the Bastille Read more:

Revolutionary Riots:

BBC News, “1968: Workers join Paris student protest.” Accessed April 26, 2013.

DeFraia, Daniel. “France protests: A photo essay.”Global Post, , sec. Regions: Europe: France, August 14, 2012. (accessed April 27, 2013).

Poggioli, Sylvia. National Public Radio, “Marking the French Social Revolution of ’68.” Last modified May 13, 2008. Accessed April 26, 2013.

University Reform:

Nundy, Julian. The Chicago Tribune, “France Drops University Reforms.” Last modified December 09, 1986. Accessed April 26, 2013.

Student Protests:

Riding, Alan. “France Yields to Student Protests, Abandoning Cut in Youth Wages.” The New York Times, , sec. World, March 29, 1994.

High School Reform and Labor Laws:

“History of French protests.” BBC News, , sec. Europe, April 10, 2006. (accessed April 18, 2013).

“In pictures: French protests.” BBC News, , sec. In Pictures, April 4, 2006.

“Students protest France’s new labor law.” USA Today, , sec. World, March 16, 2006. (accessed April 27, 2013).

DeFraia, Daniel. “France protests: A photo essay.”Global Post, , sec. Regions: Europe: France, August 14, 2012. (accessed April 27, 2013).

Pension Reform:

Keller, Greg. “Strikes over French pension reform begin.” The Washington Times, World editionOctober 12, 2010. (accessed April 27, 2013).

Pratta, Robert. “In France, Protests Over Austerity Measures.” The New York Times, , sec. World, . (accessed April 27, 2013).

Erlanger, Steven. “France: Pension Bill Signed Into Law.” The New York Times, , sec. Europe, November 10, 2010. (accessed April 27, 2013).

Gay Rights:

“Femen stages topless gay rights protest in Vatican (PHOTOS).” Colombo City Life, , sec. Hot news, local, January 14, 2013. (accessed April 27, 2013).

“Gay marriage in France: A rare victory.” Economist Magazine April 24 2013. compact disc,

Erlanger, Steven, and Scott Sayare. “Protests Against Same-Sex Marriage Bill Intensify in France.” The New York Times, , sec. Gay Voices, April 22, 2013. (accessed April 27, 2013).

Hinnat, Lori, and Sylvie Corbet. “France Legalizes Gay Marriage After Harsh Debate, Violent Protests.”Huffington Post, , sec. Gay Voices, April 23, 2013. (accessed April 27, 2013).