The French are pissed. It’s a general mood of disgruntlement and discouragement, related mostly to François Hollande’s (now infamous) tax policies. Small business owners, big business owners, artisans, the self-employed, farmers, horse riders and stable owners (their value added tax has gone up from 5,5% to 19,6%) are all pissed and many have actually taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest. Hollande has become France’s most unpopular president on record—currently at a 15% approval rating—and there are rumblings of a cabinet reshuffle, even a government dissolution and new elections. In brief, the mood is menacing. But in the classic French tradition of contradiction, the symbol of this black cloud hanging over French spirits is an exceedingly perky red cap.
Les bonnets rouges, or “The Red Caps” is the name of the biggest and loudest protest movement in France right now. It has brought nearly 30,000 people into the streets of Brittany to protest an “environmental tax” on heavyweight transport trucks and to call for jobs in this region hard-hit by bankruptcies and downsizing.
In response, the Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, temporarily suspended the ecotax measure to allow for “discussions” and announced a “new deal for Brittany’s future.” The Red Caps say it’s not enough and have called for roadblocks on highways this weekend and an even bigger demonstration on November 30th (they’ve also vandalized a toll and dozens of cameras used to track the heavy trucks for taxing, causing about €6 million of damage).
The protestors in Brittany are actually an amalgam of angry people, angry about lots of different things: farmers hit by the ecotax, former employees of many industrial food plants located in the region that have been shut down in the past year, food-processing factory owners upset about the end of European export subsidies for agricultural products and, even, allegedly, a few Breton autonomists (there is a long tradition of secessionism in this chilly north-western coastal region famous for its butter, its sailors and its mysticism). What they all have in common—aside from being pissed—are their red knit Armor Lux caps.
You could be forgiven for finding the look kind of ironically stylish, evocative of a hipster lumberjack style that wouldn’t be out of place in Williamsburg or Nolita in New York. The very same Armor Lux caps are sold (mostly in navy-blue) in trendy boutiques in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side. What the hipsters don’t know is that Armor Lux is a 75-year-old Breton company, famous for its rugged sailing apparel—its thick striped cotton shirts and warm wool caps—and at the forefront of the protectionist Made-in-France campaign that I wrote about a few weeks ago.
Nor do the Brooklyn hipsters know that Brittany actually has a history of protesting unjust taxes—and of wearing red caps while doing it. In the late 17th century, under the reign of Louis XIV, the red cap was part of traditional peasant dress in the same part of Brittany where the protests are taking place today. In 1675, the King imposed a new stamp tax to help finance France’s war against Holland. The Breton peasants rose up in protest, wearing their red caps, and the movement came to be known as the revolt of the red caps.
Later on, there were the famous red “Phrygian caps” of the Jacobins during the French Revolution (still worn today by the diverse buxom incarnations of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic). And more recently, in the 1970s, Breton autonomists used the red cap as the symbol of the emancipation of the Breton people from the arbitrary centralized power of Paris.
The sentiments of today’s pissed-off protestors are similar—get your tax off my trucks—and they’ve seized the same red cap as a symbol of their own anger. It probably helped that the Armor Lux company, undoubtedly defending the interests of Made-in-Brittany products, actually donated about a thousand red caps when the protests began in early October. More recently they’ve sold more caps to the organization coordinating the protests for just 4€ a cap (in Brooklyn they cost $44).
This turned into a bit of a PR snafu last week when it was discovered that the most recent batch of red knit caps were actually…made in Scotland. Armor Lux says it didn’t have the production capacity in Brittany to produce thousands more caps rapidly enough, and so they resorted to a “partner” in Scotland. The leader of the Breton protests tried smoothing over things with a, “Brittany, Scotland, Wales—it’s all a bit the same country.”
What the protestors aren’t smoothing over is their discontent with the Hollande government. Which isn’t limited just to the tax hikes and unemployment. Thousands of school teachers and parents have also taken to the streets in recent months to protest a major reform to the school schedule, as did hundreds of midwives in recent weeks to demand a raise and a new official status. There was last week’s downgrade by Standard and Poor’s of France’s credit rating that reinforced the disgruntlement of the growing number of disbelievers in Hollande’s ability to actually come to grips with and solve France’s economic problems.
The mood is dark. The caps are red. And by today’s globalized standards of downtown style, really hip—and even hipper now that the caps are all about gallic protest chic. It’s a fantastic branding opportunity for Armor Lux.
For Hollande, it’s more of an opportunity to look back in history at France’s previous red-cap revolts…which unfortunately all got bloody.