A Few Keys to Defuse a Riot

by Thomas Flichy de La Neuville and Thomas Dumont  |  December 7, 2018  |  ARTICLES

French Revolution

Above: Storming of the Tuileries Palace on 10 august 1792 during the French Revolution, painting by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux

Revolts, which punctuate history, seem to flow into the bed of the same river. Sometimes, the waves of anger overflow their misty shores or break over unknown rocks, but must nevertheless follow a course, which seems to have been traced in advance.

What does this riverbed look like?

At the origins of popular emotions, we usually find hunger, spurred by heavy taxation. For example, the new Roman taxation system spawned the appearance of armed gangs named Bagaudae, who ransomed North-western Gaul between the third and fifth century A.D. Unpopular taxes also triggered riots against Emperor Justinian in Constantinople in 532, or Salt riots in Moscow in 1648.

The outbreak of these disorders can be very fast when power lies in the hands of a plutocracy. We know that the god Plutus had once been blinded by Zeus, as Aristophanes recounts. That is the reason why his followers are often perceived as blind elites.

In reality, the plutocracies that have prospered in the long run are usually crowned commercial ecosystems. The latter were equipped with perfectly efficient defusing mechanisms against riots. Carthage was thus able to prosper in the long run, and Venice avoided revolutions thanks to its valuable informers: the gondoliers.

However, when a plutocracy assaults an old aristocratic empire, difficulties inevitably arise. This is the reason why banker Ouvrard yielded to Bonaparte, as did the oligarchs facing Putin.

Naturally, the private disorders of Princes pour oil on the flames of rebellions. The Nika riots, which broke out in 532 in Constantinople were partially caused by the hostility of the crowd to Empress Theodora, an actress suspected of prostitution. In the same way, the massacre of St. Bartholomew was carried out against the backdrop of an unpopular wedding project, according to which Henry IV would marry Marguerite de Valois.

The personal ambition of the prince also plays a decisive role. Let us not forget that Caesar had been named dictator perpetuo before his assassination.

Among the causes of revolts, one can also remember the rejection of a foreign presence at the top of the state. The Sicilian Vespers of 1282 were triggered against the French, the revolt of 1517 against the Lombard of London, and the 1766 riots of Madrid against the Italian minister Esquilache.

These revolts often began with a festive spark. The 1229 student riots of the Sorbonne broke out on a Fat Tuesday in Saint-Marcel district. As for the Sicilian vespers, they began on Easter Monday.

These troubles can fuel a revolution if the rebels amalgamate. Had he not been able to federate the different Germanic tribes against Rome, Arminius would not have beaten the Romans in Teutoburger Wald. At the same time in China, the red eyebrows threatened the Emperor once they had achieved the reconciliation of former opponents. Let us remember the strange alliance between the blue and green factions in Byzantium, which enabled the opposition to threaten the Emperor in 532.

But the amalgamation of oppositions is not sufficient to make a revolution, insofar as rioters also need military expertise. During the Merthyr rising of 1831, military trained opponents were able to develop paramilitary formations and put in place a central command supported by an efficient system of communication. The rioters thus ambushed the 93rd's baggage-train and beat off a relief force of 100 cavalry.

In this context, how can the authorities defeat the rioters?

By dividing them naturally -- the yellow turbans only dissolved when their leader died in 192. Moreover, by crushing them militarily. The response must be adapted but not necessarily classic. During the riots of 1517, the private army of the Duke of Norfolk finally surmounted the riot. Conversely, when the liberal bourgeoisie of the second French republic tried to stifle the workers revolt by closing the national workshops, it only stirred up their revolt. In the end, the destruction of the barricades precipitated the fall of the Second Republic.

Facing troubles, a regime does not resist very long its own lack of imagination.

Thomas Flichy de La Neuville is head of the department of war studies of Saint-Cyr's military academy and a Research Professor at IWP. Thomas Dumont has a Ph.D. in Law and is solicitor in Paris.