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Killing Cats, Yellow Vests and Protest Culture in France

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

#france #protest #yellowvests #frenchrevolution #paris #ruesaintseverin


Recently in France, people are protesting against government's tax raise policy which is an expected reason for many societies. However, the protesters wear yellow vests, as a symbol, which has turned the protests into a public movement and grabbed an international attention for their demands. It seems like symbolizing protests is a cultural reaction in France as Phrygian cap from 1789 and the slogans of 1968 Protests are still commonly known not only in France, but around the world.


Another similar case from French history, was published by Robert Darnton in 1984, “The Great Cat Massacre”. I am thankful Dr. Rappas for encouraging me to read this inspiring cultural history book which allowed me to understand and interpret social events better within a "cultural" perspective. The book analyses “the funniest thing ever” happened in a print shop owned by Jacques Vincent. It was late 1730s Paris and in Rue Saint-Séverin, the workers of the print house massacred their master’s cats with a full enjoyment, according to the notes left by Nicolas Contat who was a worker in the print house.


In early modern France, killing cats was a usual and common carnival activity. For example, in Burgundy, people tortured cats as kind of a carnival entertainment; cats’ furs were torn while music was being played. This ceremony was called as Faire le chat. Cats were also important figure in the celebration of Saint John the Baptist day, June 24. People had bonfires to jump over, and they danced around them, threw objects into them for magical power, hoping to keep disasters away and obtain good fortune for rest of the year. Cats were also tied up in bags or burned at the stakes in those ceremonies. Even in Paris, people favoured incinerating cats and Courimauds (cour a miaud or cat chasers) of Saint Chamond enjoyed running after a flaming cat through the streets.


However, this common burning cat ceremonies gained a socio-political meaning after the case of Rue Saint-Séverin. The print house workers used massacre of cats as a way of protest against their masters. Clearly, it was a reaction regarding to basic life essentials: work, food and sleep, Darnton says. The workers had lower value than the cats of the masters, so they killed them. Simply, the notes of Nicolas Contat demonstrate that the massacre was a way to express the hatred for the bourgeois, that became commonly known among the workers. The idea behind that was that “The masters love cats; consequently, the workers hate them”.

The protesters’ motive to reach a state order in which workers were not in suffer or at least have more value than masters’ cats. In Contact’s description of the upraise in the print house, there was a golden age when the printers were free and equal members of a republic inspired by a soul of “union and friendship”, fraternite. His claim is that this order was destroyed by the government in favour of the bourgeoise. As a result, the master in the Rue Saint-Séverin had a different life style than his workers: his food, his working hours, the language he spoke were all different. His family members did not work but just had fun time and adopted pets. “Workers apprentices, everyone works. Only the masters and mistresses enjoy the sweetness of sleep”.


Today, President Macron is criticized due to his polices causing increase in gas tax and decline in living standards while he deleted some part of tax burden from big companies such as Total. Also, tax ratio from salaries has reached up to 37% while people possessing 1.300.000 Euro were exempted paying the wealth tax. Some experts have already found out similarities between the Yellow Vests movement and 1789 conditions. However, the reaction way, using a common-usual-simple symbol, also draws a parallel line within French history of protests. The symbol of the French Revolution, as well-known, was Phrygian cap whereas killing cats became a symbol 40-50 years earlier.


Yellow vests are compulsory to keep in vehicles, so it is a common visual object which can be accepted by anyone as much as massacre of cats used to be in early modern France. Therefore, the Yellow Vest protesters build a connection between common people and the movement as massacre of cats did in the 18th century French society. It is hard to claim that they are aware of their eighteenth century ancestors’ protest methods such as killing cats, but 1968 protests, which found a global echo, should be still fresh for the collective memory of French society. Therefore, it does not seem surprising to see similar reactions under similar conditions in France. Symbolizing is a key point in French protesting culture. In another word, this is the way French people protest.


As a consequent of the Yellow Vest protests, the government in France had to step back one more time in the history, so the government decision for the tax rise was cancelled this week. Moreover, newspapers have already published similar protests from Belgium and Germany. Also, an immediate increase in yellow vest sales in Turkey is also reported on social media, an online shopping site applies a discount after the high demand. One more time, obviously, the French protest culture has began influencing people around the world.

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