On the 28th of October 2013, several hundred people wearing red caps attacked an ecotax tollbooth in Pont-de-Buis in the French region of Brittany. Violent clashes erupted between the demonstrators and police. A protestor was heard shouting “This is not a demonstration, it’s the start of a revolution!” One CRS policeman and three protestors were wounded, including one of the protestors having his hand ripped off by a CRS gas grenade. A call to demonstrate in Quimper on the 2nd of November followed. A vast wave of red caps and Breton flags flooded the city. Between fifteen thousand and thirty thousand people demonstrated, and there followed clashes between some of the protestors and the police. A second demonstration was called in Carhaix, where between seventeen thousand and forty thousand people gathered. At the same time, five ecotax tollbooths were attacked or destroyed across Brittany, as well as approximately fifty speed cameras. The so-called Red Caps, or Bonnets Rouges, incorporate a large number of Bretons who are frustrated with the economic policies affecting their region. The policy that ultimately drove Bretons to protest was the move to introduce an “ecotax” on trucks using French roads. However, this was only after the region experienced rising unemployment, a cessation of European export subsidies and growing support for Breton autonomy.
Four years later, this protest movement remains quiet, yet it made an astonishing impact in France, exacerbating a sense of tension and the fragility of the centralised power structure.
Who are the Bonnets Rouges?
The Phrygian cap as a protest symbol dates back to antiquity. In early modern Europe it came to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty through a confusion with the pileus, the felt cap of the emancipated slaves of ancient Rome. In artistic representations, such as France’s Marianne, it signifies freedom and the pursuit of liberty. Used in the coat of arms of certain Republics or of republican State institutions in place of a crown, it came to be identified as a symbol of the republican form of government. The red caps worn by protesters of the ecotax hark back to the seventeenth century revolt of the Papier Timbré which was particularly active in Brittany and was repressed with great severity by the soldiers of Louis XIV.
The revolt of the Papier Timbré was an anti-fiscal revolt in the west of Ancien Régime France, during the reign of Louis XIV from April to September 1675. It was fiercest in Lower Brittany, where it became known as the revolt of the Bonnets Rouges. It was unleashed by an increase in taxes, including the papier timbré, paper that was compulsory for all documents used in law, such as wills, sale contracts and vital records.
When Louis XIV declared war on the Dutch Republic in 1672, the Dutch fleet threatened the French coast, notably the Brittany coast, interfering with Breton trade. To finance the French war effort, the following taxes were levied: (1) a tax on papier timbré; (2) a tax on tobacco, which became a royal monopoly, resulting in a temporary interruption to the distribution of smoking and chewing tobacco; (3) a tax on all tin objects, even those bought long before, resulting in a high rise in the price of consumables; and (4) a tax requiring commoners in possession of a noble fiefdom to pay fees every 20 years. These taxes exacerbated existing economic difficulties in the region.
The Bonnet Rouge as Fashion Statement and State Symbol
By mid-1791, the bonnet rouge, along with the sans-culottes (‘without [satin] breeches’), became a statement representing the common people of the lower classes, a great many of whom became radical and militant partisans of the French Revolution in response to their poor quality of life under the Ancien Régime. During the period of the Reign of Terror (September 1793 – July 1794), the cap was adopted defensively even by those who might be denounced as moderates or aristocrats and were especially keen to advertise their adherence to the new regime. The caps were often knitted by women known as tricoteuses, who sat beside the guillotine during public executions in Paris and supposedly continued knitting in between executions. Even the spire of Strasbourg Cathedral was crowned with a bonnet rouge in order to prevent it from being torn down in 1794.
The bonnet rouge became a state symbol in 1814, along with La Marseillaise and Bastille Day celebrations, when the Acte de déchéance de l’Empereur decision formally deposed the Bonapartes and restored the Bourbon regime. However, these were immediately suppressed again following the second restoration of Louis XVIII on the 8th of July 1815. The symbols resurfaced during the July Revolution of 1830, after which they were reinstated by the liberal July Monarchy of Louis Philippe I, and the revolutionary symbols of La Marseillaise, Bastille Day, and the bonnet rouge, became “constituent parts of a national heritage consecrated by the state and embraced by the public” (Nord 1995, p. 202).
The Breton Flag
The Breton flag, or gwenn-ha-du, was adopted in 1925 by Marcel Cachin, representing the Association des Bretons Émancipés, or the Association of Free Bretons, an organisation close to the Communist Party, and by Eugène Reigner, representing the Cercles Celtiques, or Celtic Circles. However, in the late 1920s and 1930s it was above all associated with Breton autonomists and nationalists. During the Second World War, it was used by both resisters and collaborators, and was judged to be ‘seditious’ by French authorities who outlawed it on several occasions before, during and after the conflict. After the war, the rising generation of Breton cultural activists reshaped their region’s identity, literature and political status (Desaussure 2016) and many groups in Brittany adopted the Breton flag. Folkloric associations, usually quite apolitical, popularised it in their parades, and sailors proudly raised it on the masts of their ships. In 1972, it made a dramatic appearance alongside the red flag, at the strike of the Joint français. This strike lasted eight weeks, and attracted widespread support from the Breton population. Attracting widespread media attention, it was arguably the moment when Bretons began to identify themselves en masse with this symbol. Henceforth, no cultural, political or labour meeting in Brittany was complete without the presence of the gwenn-ha-du. The flag has become the symbol of all Bretons, without distinction. Nowadays, businesses even place it on their products in order to encourage sales, most mayors choose to fly it on public buildings and even the French authorities, once so cautious, now place this symbol on the number-plates of cars from the administrative region of Brittany.
The Bonnet Rouge and Gwenn-ha-du as Modern Day Symbols of Autonomy
The anti-tax associations with the bonnet rouge from the seventeenth century were revived in October 2013, when the French tax-protest movement called the Bonnets Rouges used the red revolution-era Phrygian cap as a protest symbol. As with its predecessor, there were other economic issues at stake, the ecotax, like the tax on papier timbre, was the final straw in a number of economically debilitating policies and changes in the region. At its heart, the protest attacked the centralised structure of France’s system of government, giving the protest an almost separatist quality. The symbols of the bonnet rouge and the gwenn-ha-du have developed to carry strong autonomic connotations. The movement successfully forced the French government to rescind the tax, demonstrating the strength of the region, but will it ever take the ultimate leap and demand autonomy?
Desaussure, AL 2016, Global Brittany: Breton Literature and the Francophone World, PhD Thesis, Yale University.
Nord, PG 1995, The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-century France, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.