‘Democratic’ governments exploit protests to increase attacks on citizens' right to resist

The rise of authoritarian politics in ‘formal democracies’ across Europe has been met with various forms of protest. Some of these movements have achieved partial success. But evidence from the UK and France suggests that neoliberal governments are harnessing such resistance to accelerate authoritarianism and hostility towards marginalised people, write Joseph Ward and Thomas Da Costa Vieira

Cross-channel authoritarianism

Received wisdom suggests the political culture of the UK and France are worlds apart, especially when it comes to resistance. The French are famed for the radicalism of their street protests. The British, by contrast, are often perceived as subdued and deferential in their opposition. Of course, any evidence-based assessment suggests this stereotype does not stand up to scrutiny. Yet the rise of state coercion recently documented across the two nations indicates it is becoming increasingly difficult to express dissent on both sides of the Channel, however you choose to do so.

Since the Brexit-referendum year of 2016, successive Conservative leaders in the UK have faced accusations of ‘democratic backsliding’. Measures taken to repress protest and force through unpopular legislation have seen similar charges pinned on the Macron administrations in France. At a global level, economic stagnation and the decline of neoliberal legitimacy have catalysed the decline in democracy across many states and regions.

The elevation of home affairs

Our research situates these cross-channel developments in a wider context. A recent Geoforum article pinpoints the 2015 migrant crisis as crucial in elevating the discourse of home affairs in attempts to preserve neoliberal legitimacy. Placed in historical context, the reasons for such a shift become clearer. Long before 2015, and, indeed, as a result of colonial legacies, legislative and institutional reforms began to marginalise ‘non-citizens’ and migrants, and to glorify the forces of law and order.

The Macron administration initially promised that an unshackled, entrepreneurial, market-based world would offer a better life for French people. Yet, resistance – particularly in the shape of the gilets jaunes – revealed how this project did not align with the worsening economic conditions faced by many.

The gilets jaunes protests pushed Macron to shift the narrative. Building on a wider historical legacy, his administration resorted to tropes of ‘authoritarian secularism' to legitimise the ever-more-violent tactics of the French police. The murder of Nahel Merzouk and related unrest in summer 2023 epitomised the ways in which hostility in France towards citizens of colour – Muslims in particular – has increased.

Macron promised that an unshackled, market-based world would offer the French a better life. The gilets jaunes protested against the emptiness of such promises

In the UK, the post-Brexit Conservative Party has occasionally sought to distance itself from the dominant tenets of neoliberalism – particularly the reassertion of ‘national sovereignty’ in the face of globalisation. Yet, it has concurrently sought to revive the idea of the UK has a pioneering free-trade nation, fetishising ‘trade deals’ and touting the (re)establishment of ‘global Britain’.

Amid this incoherence, successive leaders have upped the ante on home affairs. They have granted the police more discretion, despite growing evidence of malpractice and discrimination. They have introduced extensive legislative reforms that curtail the right to protest and the right to citizenship, and they have toughened border controls.

Protest in global and national context

Why have European borders have become more politicised since 2015? And why have home affairs in general become a salient political issue? To gain a clearer perspective, it is important to situate these developments in global trends. In the UK, obsession with border security manifests in moral panic at migrants arriving in small boats across the channel. In France, we see it in the intensification of Islamophobia. Yet these developments must be viewed in the context of Western intervention in the Middle East and climate breakdown.

In the UK, obsession with border security manifests in moral panic at migrant channel crossings. In France, we see it in rising Islamophobia

From this vantage point, reforms in the UK and France can be seen as part of a wider shift to 'externalise' border management. The UK has long operated juxtaposed controls at the Dover-Calais crossing, and the post-2015 period has seen introduction of similar controls by France through several suspensions to the Schengen Agreement. Such methods mirror global political patterns of offshoring and externalisation, such as EU Agreements with North African countries or the Australian detention system.

Climate crisis: connecting authoritarianism and resistance

The rise in authoritarian reforms among 'formally democratic' regimes provokes new patterns of dissidence. Neoliberal governments are harnessing this dissidence to accelerate authoritarianism and hostility towards marginalised people. This is happening not only in the field of home affairs, but also in other increasingly politicised areas, such as climate policy.

In the UK, direct-action movements against fossil fuel expansion and climate breakdown have proliferated in recent years. Referring explicitly to the tactics of climate activists, legislation passed by the Conservatives seeking to limit citizens' rights to protest and free expression introduced new offences related to obstructing road and ‘critical’ infrastructure. This led to an unprecedented criminalisation of protestors, and the longest prison sentence for a peaceful protest in UK history. This episode reveals how the elevation of home affairs and the politics of climate change have been intertwined.

Many accused the gilets jaunes of being 'anti-green'. But their movement was more a revolt against Macron's failure to oversee a 'just transition' to greener practices

In France, climate change has also been at the forefront of this dynamic. Many people accused the gilets jaunes of being ‘anti-green’ in their revolt against fuel taxes. More sophisticated assessments, however, understand the movement as a revolt against Macron’s failure to oversee a ‘just transition’. More recently, the Macron government has made increasing use of repressive laws on terrorism and separatism to attack climate protesters and dissolve climate groups. Such attacks exemplify his government's increasing ‘hatred of contestation and popular mobilisation’.

The French and British state(s) have extended their repertoire of violent and repressive tactics to ‘deal with’ protestors. Their actions illustrate how in a context of fragile neoliberal legitimacy, states are lashing out in response to protest, escalating authoritarianism, and coarsening their politics.

What next?

In recent weeks, a farmers' movement has emerged across the EU, protesting at cheap imports. There are signs their movement may well spread to the UK. The farmers' revolt is showing how resistance can still present a significant challenge to state institutions, in spite of the growing armoury of tools for repressing and curtailing the right to protest. This interaction between the growth of anti-democratic practices and the evolving shape of resistance has crucial implications for economic inequality, the health of democracy, and the challenge of addressing the climate crisis.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Joseph Ward Joseph Ward ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Sheffield More by this author
photograph of Thomas Da Costa Vieira Thomas Da Costa Vieira Fellow in International Political Economy, International Relations Department, London School of Economics and Political Science More by this author

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