Saturday 2 November witnessed a mass demonstration in Quimper, Brittany. Anywhere between 15,000-30,000 people were in attendance protesting for the suppression of the l’écotaxe in Brittany. This tax will target and charge the most polluting vehicles using the French road network and is aimed at encouraging a greener approach to transport with money raised being to be ploughed into improving infrastructure. Emerging from the Grenelle sur l’environnement under the Sarkozy era, this measure has met with a certain degree of opposition in France and in particular concerning the contract awarded to the private company Ecomouv’ to oversee the implementation of the tax. The outraged reaction in Brittany, which has included militants actually dismantling and setting fire to the huge gantries (portiques) used to scan the road network and charge users, can be explained through a consideration of certain regional specificities.
Firstly, given the economic concentration of the food processing industry in Brittany there is an inherent dependence on the road network in order for produce to be transported around the country. However, such a dependence is accentuated due to the paucity of alternative transport and in particular rail. This is an enduring problem for the region and has been traditionally linked to claims that it has been left on the margins. It was as a consequence of this situation that a 50% exemption for Brittany was discussed and proposed. However, in order to understand why this has been insufficient in placating Breton protestors one must understand l’écotaxe as the final straw for a region suffering a much more general economic struggle. This tax is in fact just one more in a succession of blows for the food processing industry – the backbone of the Breton economy – that has been in a progressively worsening state of crisis in recent years leading to the closure of many factories and the loss of countless jobs.
However, as tradition would have it, the Bretons are not intent on taking this plight lying down and interestingly they are tapping into historical references to strengthen their case. For example, the movement has become known as Les Bonnets Rouges with all militants sporting red hats (produced by the Breton-based company Armor-Lux) in reference to the famous 17th century anti-tax revolt in Brittany.
Furthermore, one of the main slogans of the movement is Vivre, Décider et Travailler en Bretagne which originates from the Breton movement of the 1950s-70s when the issue of addressing the region’s isolation (désenclavement) was the central focus of organisations like the Comité d’étude et de liaison des intérêts Bretons (CELIB ). It is also no coincidence that the announcement of the Quimper demonstration by the Collectif Vivre, Decider et Travailler en Bretagne was made in the same symbolically charged rooms in Carhaix that witnessed the founding meetings of the CELIB in the 1950s.
The mass turnout at Quimper, the subsequent media coverage and the broadening support suggests a successful step forward for les Bonnets Rouges. To what extent their revolt will lead to a governmental climb down on l’écotaxe and some action on addressing the more general economic woes of the region, l’histoire nous dira…