France is revolting

It seems that Danny The Red, star - if that is the right word - of France's 1968 riots, is condemning the current French riots. His generation of rioters wanted to change things. This generation wants things to stay the same.

He has a point, but there is a perhaps more interesting point at issue here. In the UK political science accepts that organisation demonstrations is a sign of weakness, not of strength. In the 1980s the biggest demonstrations were organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the unions. Such demonstrations reflected the fact that these groups had absolutely no influence with the government at all. They did have some popular support. CND typically had the support of around a third of the electorate. Union support varied from issue to issue, but often divided the country fairly evenly. But in both cases the influence with the government was zero.

The National Farmers' Union, by contrast, unlike industrial unions, was very influential in Conservative circles. Its members were protected and subsidised, and were stalwarts of local Conservative Associations. It never organised a demonstration.

Since 1997 things have changed. The NFU is part of the Countryside Alliance, which has organised huge demonstrations against the Labour government. The only demonstrations of comparable size have been organised by the Coalition Against the War. Both organisations have no influence with the government, and their concerns have been ignored.

Demonstrations never achieve a change in public policy. All of this makes sense. Mobilising a million people on a march tells you how passionately those people feel about an issue, but tells you nothing about the support of the proposition among the other 60 million.

There are, perhaps exceptions. Did the poll tax riots lead to a change in public policy? Or was it, perhaps, the level of public opposition among those who did not riot? Tax resistance is a real lever on the polity, which makes this issue somewhat different from war, in which most people do not directly participate. Unions, too, have changed public policy, though by strikes, not by demonstrations or riots.

But why is France so different from the UK? Why do French politicians buckle before rioters? Is it, perhaps, because the grand traditions of French politics do not include daily accountability of the government to Parliament? I do not know the answer, but the question remains intriguing.

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