Demonstrations: How the Saucepan Became an Object of Contestation

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Pension reform protests using saucepans

For several weeks, we have shown our dissatisfaction through saucepans. These noisy gatherings are nothing new. Back to their story.

“Saucepans and eggs are for cooking”, ironically declared Emmanuel Macron on the move to a college in Hérault, on April 20th, 2023, after being greeted by a pan of disgruntled residents.

Since his speech on April 17th, 2023, two days after the enactment of the highly contested pension reform, the social protest that took place in the streets for nearly three months has changed its face.

From now on, we claim our dissatisfaction with a lot of kitchen utensils that we knock together to make noise. Concerts of pots and pans, the saucepans, to welcome the members of the government, to show his dissatisfaction.

This mode of contestation, for the less unusual, is however not new. Where is he from? A look back at the use of the saucepan as a symbol of protest throughout history.

Starting point: the President’s address

” Originally, it all started with a joke between us,” says Alice Picard, co-spokesperson for Attac.

The anti-globalization association, which fights for social, fiscal and ecological justice, is the first to have relayed the saucepans organized in several cities in France, to accommodate the trips of ministers or the President of the Republic.

Within Attac, during the weekend following the decision of the Constitutional Council to validate the main part of the reform, one immediately joins the call of the unions for the big demonstration of May 1st.

“But we had to give prospects of closer protests to people angry at these government coups,” explains the co-spokesperson.

Among the ideas that emerged that weekend, was that of banging on pots during Emmanuel Macron’s speech on April 17th. “The President, with this speech, showed that he was in a hurry to turn the page after having promulgated the law, to say that the reform had not been understood but that it was still necessary to move on”, analyzes Alice Piccard.

“He doesn’t want to listen to us, so neither do we”

For the members of the association, Emmanuel Macron claims to want to turn the page, and he decrees 100 days of appeasement amounted to saying that he did not listen and did not hear the citizens’ disagreement.

“He doesn’t want to listen to us, so we don’t listen to him either!” And we made it known by banging on pans. We don’t want to turn the page either, we want to continue to discuss, ”describes Alice Picard.

Finally, at Attac, we realize that people are seizing this means of expression to go and welcome Emmanuel Macron but also various ministers on the move. “The saucepans correspond to a popular way of challenging a way of governing”, continues the co-spokesperson of the movement.

A popular object

Michel Pigenet, professor emeritus of contemporary history, at University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, agrees.

“It is an original form of protest at a time when the protest against the pension reform is at a turning point : it is difficult to continue the momentum of previous forms of mobilization. When Emmanuel Macron intervenes, the pans want to signify that life is elsewhere, to underline the loneliness of the President. They cover, in a way, his voice to invite us to look elsewhere”.

And then the saucepan, which has become a symbol, is a popular object, within everyone’s reach:

It’s an instrument that most people have at home, in their kitchen: it’s immediately available and inexpensive, like the yellow vest for example. And then, it allows you to get organized quickly, and even with a group of few people, it allows you to make noise and show that you are there.

Alice Picard – Attac co-spokesperson

“It’s even less dangerous than going to a demonstration”, according to Michel Pigenet.

The end of a day of protest in front of the town hall of Bayeux, to the sound of saucepans and pots.
The end of a day of protest in front of the town hall of Bayeux, to the sound of saucepans and pots.

Saucepans, a new form of protest

However, the social protest of 2023 against the Macron government’s pension reform is not the first to see this kind of thunderous gathering emerge.

Let’s go back in time: around the 19th century, this eminently popular means of protest participated in “the meeting of folklore and political protest”, begins Michel Pigenet.

At the time, we banged more on cauldrons, the pans were just beginning to spread. Before universal suffrage was established in 1848, banging on cauldrons was a sonic occupation of the public space, a challenge to the authorities, which however we avoided facing directly.

Michel Pigenet

In fact, the saucepan is the heir of another popular tradition: the charivari. A term that would be of Greek origin, and would refer to “headache”.

Concretely, the charivari is a means of community protest which takes the form of a sound gathering, where we shout and bang on pots, in front of the house of someone who transgresses the norms or betrays them.

“It is a rite of community surveillance, often used to denounce a breach of marriage ‘rules’: for example, when an elderly widower remarries a young woman. The village community does not accept this and expresses it loudly by means of a charivari. At night, we gather in front of the home of the person targeted, we bang on cauldrons, we shout, and we sing. Which from the point of view of the authorities constitutes a disturbance of public order, ”says Michel Pigenet, also author of the book History of social movements in France, from 1814 to the present day. 

The July Monarchy, a famous period of hullabaloo

These hullabaloos also target people whose behaviour, at odds with their community, seems to betray it, according to Michel Pigenet. A means of involving the people, who did not have the right to vote at that time, in the public political protest.

In history, there are several times when hullabaloos are organized. So it is at the beginning of the July Monarchy, in 1830, the day after a revolution and a change of regime.

The people expect a lot from the constitutional monarchy they helped to establish. The Republicans, hostile to Louis-Philippe, who is ascending the throne, are not resigned to their defeat. They denounce the new power and its supporters, sometimes subjected to loud demonstrations of discontent.

Michel Pigenet

“We attacked the king in person”

Even before the July Monarchy, charivaris already existed. Especially during the Restoration, this period of return, from 1814 to 1815, of the monarchy as a political regime, after the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte.

“When Louis XVIII came to the throne, many notables who had supported the Empire until then, turned their backs. In several places, the people manifest their dissatisfaction with the ‘traitors’, objects of sarcasm, songs, seditious cries and hullabaloo,” says the historian.

Often these attacks, which aim for power, are very personalized: they attack the king or the emperor in person, his physique. This will happen whenever we have an embodied power (a monarchy or an empire for example), and resumes when we have regimes that limit freedoms.

Michel Pigenet

According to Michel Pigenet, “modern politics” and “the entrenchment of democracy” exhaust this form of protest, without making it completely disappear.

The saucepan is never far away: “In the 20th century, again, it frequently happened that, during strikes, the workers marched to the house of the boss or the director. »

However, this form of contestation has lost the effectiveness it had within the village communities of yesteryear. “It is hard to imagine it leading to the overthrow of a regime or the paralysis of a country,” adds the historian.

A pot concert of saucepans in Cherbourg

Algeria, Latin America, Iceland…

If it is in France that we see the first charivaris appear, this mode of popular expression is exported outside the old continent, to Latin America (Chile or Argentina) and Africa.

“In the Algeria of 1961-1962, the Pieds-noirs demonstrated their support for the OAS (Secret Army Organization) and their hostility to General De Gaulle with pot concerts. In a context very different from the current anti-Macron protests, it is also a question of covering the voice of the official media, “says the professor of contemporary history.

In 2023, the saucepans have a “bell” function, intended to remind us that the page on pension reform has not been turned. “We are here”, sing their authors, resolved to testify loudly. mark the transition from one register of mobilization – strikes and demonstrations of the January-April sequence – to another, without letting go of the matter.

Michel Pigenet

Finally, the demonstration passes into another register: “The effect is not to paralyze the government, but to make the action and the governmental presence unbearable”, estimates the historian.

Moreover, some are wondering if making noise to drown out the voice of the government’s speech would not be counterproductive, and would precisely extinguish any possibility of dialogue. But Alice Picard replies that “bordering the trips of ministers is not an end in itself, just a tool towards the final objective ”.

We are not satisfied with the simple fact that ministers are prevented from speaking. We still want to discuss but not in the terms that the government imposes, we want to continue to talk about work and pension reform.

Alice Picard – Attac co-spokesperson

Pans that overthrow the government?

So, could casseroles really destabilize power?

“Anything is always possible”, replies Alice Picard, recalling that in Argentina in 2001, the casseroles had finally succeeded in causing the resignation of the President, Fernando De la Rua. “Currently, the government is leading the battle of public opinion and is trying to discredit the movement, so it’s up to who will succeed in convincing. »

And for good reason, the members of the government have never ceased to ridicule the movement, Olivier Dussopt describing the casseroles as “funny conception of democracy”, or even Emmanuel Macron believing that we do not govern with saucepans.

In some cities, we have even witnessed grotesque situations, where the mobilized police confiscated the pans of demonstrators, with a prefectural decree prohibiting the use of sound devices.

“Curiously, the public reactions of the executive and the means implemented to try to prevent these protests encourage their initiators to continue”, comments Michel Pigenet.

If saucepans have always existed, they have never succeeded in paralyzing power. The pot still seems to be a great danger for the executive now faced with a derision that undermines his authority. “Jupiterian power must impose. He does not adapt well to mockery”, for Michel Pigenet.

While the demonstrations of May 1st are, everywhere in France, sound, the pans are not about to return to the closet.

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