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Book ChapterDOI

A Post-contentious Turning Point for the Contentious French? Crisis Without Protest in France

01 Jan 2018-pp 115-139

Abstract: This chapter shows that the ‘contentious French’ may not be that contentious anymore. The economic crisis provides a unique chance to argue that a post-contentious turning point is emerging in spite of a long-standing tradition of protesting. Yet the chapter suggests that this post-contentious turning point is not bringing about acquiescence but opens space for new forms of political participation, especially in connection with resources acquired through employment and educational track. In this case, we find a more extensive engagement in online activism and non-institutional forms of political participation, that is, the two forms of political participation that are less ‘active’ and require a more modest time commitment. These findings are also put in the broader context of contemporary French politics.
Topics: Politics (52%)

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Chapter 5
A Post-Contentious Turning Point for the Contentious French? Crisis
Without Protest in France
Didier Chabanet, Manlio Cinalli, Anne Muxel, Steven Van Hauwaert, and Thierry Vedel
The main argument of this chapter is to show that France no longer fits the typical portrait of a
contentious country, as suggested by traditional scholarship of protest about the country
(Kitschelt, 1986; Kriesi et al., 1995). The economic crisis, which has had a strong impact in
France, provides an opportunity to explore that French citizens are breaking with their secular
history of being the ‘contentious French’ (Tilly, 1986). Yet, the chapter also suggests that this
‘post-contentious turning point does not necessarily amount to a broader process of
acquiescence, as found elsewhere in Europe (Cinalli, 2004, 2007; Cinalli and Giugni, 2016). In
fact, a process of substituting protest with other forms of political participation is identified as
an ongoing trend, thus opening space for further research on how collective action may look
like in future decades. The argument about a post-contentious France, which so counter-
intuitively sits in the background of the economic crisis, draws upon the main French findings
from the LIVEWHAT survey. In particular, we focus on a large volume of different forms of
participation with a view to weigh the specific importance of protest. Naturally, we also look
into the main variables usually associated with variations of political participation, focusing in
particular on the usual suspects of age, gender education, and labour market position. These
findings are then placed in the broader context of contemporary French politics —including the
presidential election campaign of 2012 and policy implications of the economic crisis— so as
to open more room for their interpretation.

Political Participation in France at the Time of the Economic Crisis
Following Teorell, Torcal, and Montero (2007) and Brady (1999:737), it is possible to define
political participation as “action[s] by ordinary citizens directed toward influencing some
political outcomes”. This somewhat broad conceptualisation goes well beyond electoral
participation and includes more private and informal actions. In what follows, we
systematically exclude electoral participation, as it is still the most widespread form of
participation and high numbers of electoral participants would overshadow information from
other forms of participation. In fact, some scholars have also argued that voting is qualitatively
different from all other forms of political participation (Verba, Schlozman and Brady, 1995).
Most of the commonly used datasets include a limited number of items that can serve as proxies
for political participation. However, using the LIVEWHAT dataset, we can identify no less
than 16 separate survey items that can serve as indicators of non-electoral political participation.
In what follows, we provide a two-fold descriptive overview of these variables in the French
context. First, we individually discuss these items. Second, we harmonise these different items
into distinct dimensions to provide further analysis, leading to interpretation.
Starting with the discussion of 16 items, they all indicate some form of political
participation such as contacting a politician, donating money, wearing a badge, signing a
petition, boycotting a product, buying a product, attending a political meeting, attending a
demonstration, joining a strike, joining an occupation, damaging things, using personal
violence, discussing or sharing an opinion (online), joining/starting group or following
politician (online), visiting a political website (online), and searching for political information
(online). Table 5.1 provides an overview of the percentage of French respondents who have
(and have not) participated in each of these political activities in the past 12 months. We provide
both weighted and unweighted percentages.
[Table 5.1]

This leads to a number of interesting observations regarding the principal activities of
French respondents. First and foremost, we notice that more French respondents participate in
online forms of political participation than in offline forms, at least relatively speaking. In line
with a high rate of internet users,
almost one third of French respondents in our sample indicate
that they have searched online for political information. Furthermore, about 15 per cent of
respondents indicate they have either discussed or shared their opinion online or visited a
political website. Second, as some of the most common forms of offline political participation,
we can identify signing a petition (18.1 per cent) and boycotting a product (17.1 per cent).
Combined, these first two observations would indicate that French respondents are not showing
signs of acquiescence at the time of economic crisis.
However, some of the more direct or ‘active’ forms of participation continue to be
marginal amongst French respondents in line with a traditional political culture that avoids open
display of political preferences in the same way that one finds, for example, in Anglo-Saxon
countries (Kuhn, 2004; Pélabay, 2014). Accordingly, contacting a politician (7.7 per cent),
attending a political meeting (5.3 per cent), donating money (4.9 per cent) and wearing a badge
(3.9 per cent) display in our sample only limited appeal, since none of these activities manage
to mobilise more than 10 per cent of French respondents.
If we combine this observation with
the discussion above, we find some initial support for our argument that some of the initially
non-traditional forms of participation by the ‘contentious French’ are now becoming more
popular or mainstream’. This is consistent with the finding that some of the ‘harsher’ (and
inadvertently, also more active) forms of political participation, like damaging things or using
violence, remain quite uncommon.
These initial distributions allow us to make some preliminary observations. However,
if we want to provide a more holistic and inferential account of political participation, our
analysis needs to construct one or more measures that allow us to harmonise some of the

information discussed above. Here, the measures used for different forms of political
participation are diverse. They range from simple dichotomous variables to different indices,
either aggregate or scaled. Despite the diversity of measurements, many of them have an
important resemblance. They are made or better, constructed in support of underlying
theoretical dimension/s, most often with little connection between theory and method. To
account for such an anomaly, as well as the original conjecture that political participation is a
latent (continuous) variable constructed from a number of individual activities (Verba, Nie and
Kim, 1978), we use confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) to confirm any underlying dimensions.
Not only can CFA validate the dependent variable’s proposed dimensionality, it also allows for
the estimation of the variation alongside the latent dimensions into separate dependent
[Table 5.2]
Since van Deth (2014) upholds it is unlikely that different dimensions of political
participation are independent, this study accounts for clustering by not compelling the reference
axes of the CFA to be orthogonal. Table 5.2 illustrates the result of our factor analysis of 16
different items (total Cronbach’s alpha = 0.83). It brings forward four distinct latent
dimensions: institutional (contacted a politician, donated money, wore a badge, attended a
political meeting), non-institutional (signed a petition, boycotted a product, bought a product,
demonstration), direct action or protest (joined a strike, joined an occupation, damaged things,
used personal violence) and online (discussed or shared an opinion, joined/started group or
followed politician, visited a political website, searched for political information). Overall,
given out wealth of survey items (16 items, as opposed to 6-8 items in most large-scale surveys),
it should not be surprising we can offer a more detailed and multi-dimensional picture of
political participation.

If we plot the average position of the French respondent when it comes to their
participation in politics, we can gain further insights into both the relative levels and frequency
of the different forms of political participation. Figure 5.1 provides such a general perspective
of our four dimensions of political participation. The first crucial result is that factor three
that is, direct action or protest – stands out as the most marginal, both in relative and absolute
terms. Considering this factor consists of joining a strike, joining an occupation, damaging
things and using personal violence, it is not surprising it is in line with observations made above
regarding some of the ‘harsher’ forms of participation [cf. Table 5.1]. Moreover, this falls in
line with some of the general observations throughout the literature that indicate such protest
activism is only practiced by a small proportion of individuals (Fillieule, 1997; Fillieule and
Tartakowsky, 2008; Chabanet and Lacheret, 2016). The main point to emphasize in the context
of our argument here is that this trend is not that different among the no longer contentious
French, even at the time of deepest economic grievances.
[Figure 5.1]
Yet the ‘post-contentious French’ systematically resort to forms of political
participation other than protest, thus showing hardly any acquiescence and apathetic withdrawal
from politics. Traditional forms of individual political engagement (under the form of
institutional participation), collective not-disruptive forms of mobilisation (under the form of
non-institutional participation), together with newer forms of online activism show that
respondents are hardly acquiescent at the time of the economic crisis. Figure 5.1 also enables
us to observe that institutional participation is much less common in France than non-
institutional mobilisation and online activism. This supports the initial observations made in
Table 5.1 regarding the individual items. At the same time, this also confirms some of the
hypotheses in the literature that suggest non-institutional participation might be the ‘new’
normal form of political participation (Mayer, 2010; Ion, 2012; Rosanvallon, 2015).

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