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The Spread of Tax Resistance: The Antitax Movement in France in the 1970s
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In his landmark book devoted to ways of protests and to the repertoire of collective actions, Charles Tilly demonstrates that tax rebellions were constantly a source of unrest in rural France during the Ancien Régime and after the French revolution. 1 However, what seems to be a French historical continuity reflects very different social structures under different historical regimes. The antitax movements vary according to the type of organizations that represent them (political parties, unions, or taxpayer organizations) but moreover according to the social classes. In this respect, the term “tax revolt,” which is often used to talk about people’s hostility toward the fiscal state, could be misleading as it implicitly attributes tax revolt to the grassroots people, or at least to the social class in conflict with the ruling power. In order not to limit the analysis to the working class, it would be better to use the expression “tax resistance,” which includes every type of overt antitax complaints. Whereas most scholars explain fiscal revolts by the political and social conditions surrounding actions of individuals, 2 this article links the “repertoires of collective actions” 3 to antitax movements and the response of the state’s civil servants. 4

As a result, the fact that violence against the French tax administration waned should not be interpreted as the sign of a general consent but rather of a transformation of tax resistance itself. Whereas in the nineteenth century, most tax protests hoped to undermine the ruling power, tax resistance that continued at the end of the twentieth century aimed more at influencing tax policies than casting doubt on tax payment per se. Therefore, tax resistance should not only be analyzed as a strict rebellion against the state: 5 First and foremost, its goal is to negotiate tax expenditures from state authorities, allowing taxpayers to reduce their tax burden within the limits of the law. 6 Under certain circumstances, tax resistance may give birth to alliances between citizens who want to weaken the power of the state and the middle class expecting its protection, as Isaac William Martin shows it in his book on tax protest in California at the end of the 1970s. 7

In France, self-employed and small businessmen dominated antitax movements throughout the second part of the twentieth century. The antitax demonstrations allowed them to strengthen their sense of belonging to an intermediary group between workers and employers, and to distinguish them from the middle classes’ civil servants. Whereas in Italy, the mobilization of the traditional middle classes was oriented against the left, it was used in France to criticize and to limit the state power. 8 Craftsmen and shopkeepers fought the French state and, in the process, cemented a new collective class consciousness.

The antitax movement triggered in 1969 by Gérard Nicoud—a young charismatic café owner—was immediately viewed as a resurgence of Poujadism. Pierre Poujade was the leader of the huge antitax movement, which flourished in France between 1954 and 1958 and which obtained 12 percent of the vote in France’s parliamentary elections in 1956. In the 1970s, rebellions drew on the same social base, but they differed from the Poujadist movement in important ways. The protests of the 1970s lasted much longer (almost ten years), lacked a political outlet (no deputy directly claimed to represent it), and resorted to more violent means.

From a systematic use of the archives of the central administration of the General Tax Office, I first depict the various forms of the tax revolt, which broke out in the French département of Isère in 1969 and lasted until 1978. Leaders initially organized violent demonstrations against tax offices. Then they campaigned to stop paying the patente, a special tax paid only by the self-employed. Facing the threat of fines, they also called for out-of-court petitions and for systematic legal recourses. Eventually, after failing to use legal means and to take advantage of French bureaucratic procedures, they turned to violent actions and demonstrations. To protest against the wide discretionary power of tax administration and its power of “inquisition,” they intimidated tax inspectors and sometimes committed physical violence against them.

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