Contemporary Activism in Europe

Big Question: Is social change only a consequence of activism or can it occur in other ways? Does grassroots organizing make change happen – in Europe?

Time Commitment: 75 minutes

Why This Matters:

This is a time of great activism in Europe. In the last few years, a wave of protests has been observed in most European nations as the debt crisis and the strict austerity measures implemented by the European Union have afflicted citizens and stimulated new forms of social movement activism. Mass demonstrations, rallies, protests, and sit-ins are just a few examples of how people can make their voices heard, sometimes peacefully and other times less so.

Diving In, Part 1: From the bottom, up

We could argue that “We’re all activists now.” In fact, activism happens in various forms in most communities. However, it seems that local expressions of activism often go unacknowledged and that the connection between local activism and global activism goes unrecognized. Richard Youngs (senior fellow at Carnegie Europe) explains that “activism is taking on a different form [and] it’s being complemented by a much more grassroots- and community-based form of activism.” In his book, Youngs primarily examines political and civic activism from the point of view of organized social movements and their role in challenging and reshaping global politics in recent years.

Reflect: At this point, it is useful to ask ourselves how a localized movement turns into a national phenomenon. In other words, when does the voice of only a few become the voice of the majority? Let’s consider two examples.

Diving In, Part 2: United on the Internet? How do French marginalized working poor and climate change activists converge and diverge in the Gilets Jaunes movement?

In October 2018, an online petition against rising fuel prices in France was launched, gaining a strong following. Shortly after, in November, a call went out on Facebook to actively protest discontentment. In the space of a few weeks, spontaneous protests arose all around France, barricades were formed and roundabouts and toll stations outside of cities, putting weekend traffic to a standstill.

Read this  875-word article – Gilets Jaunes: why the French working poor are demanding Emmanuel Macron’s resignation (by Oliver Davis, French Studies professor from Warwick University, UK). Look for these keywords; green tax, populist, trade union movement

Reflect and Engage:

1.  In what way are Gilets Jaunes caught in the cross-fire of climate change debates?

2.  Why did it disproportionately affect French society?

3.  How did the group organize, and what are their demands?

4.  Who has joined forces in the group?

France has been dedicated to meet its climate change goals. This measure was intended to progressively reduce dependence on fuel and to phase out diesel use. Ironically, the planned fuel price increase was brought forth by the previous Holland government and his Environmental Minister, the prominent activist and ecologist Nicolas Hulot, a hero to the political left.

Demographer Hervé le Bras states that the car is the common denominator between all the Gilets Jaunes, recalling that the liberty to circulate is of foremost importance in semi-rural and rural France.

Therefore, while this measure adversely affects French rural populations who already face economic hardships with stagnant salaries and a rising cost of living. These are also groups who rely directly on their cars and feel most directly targeted.

Professor Davis terms the protesters the French working poor who seek President Macron’s resignation as they claim they are no longer cared for in France’s neoliberal system. They garner support from many political parties on the political spectrum and also from trade unions.

Patrick Farbiaz, in his study Les Gilets jaunes. Documents et textes states,In any case, at least until the end of December 2018, this was not a movement of the urban working classes, nor of the outlying low-income neighborhoods or banlieues, whose inhabitants are frequently “of immigrant background.”

View and Engage:

Watch this video taken from 2018 television news highlights and set to the song “Tensions Sociales” by the rapper D’Ace. His lyrics include “Hé c’truc là c’est plus qu’un gilet, j’le met pour défendre mes idées” which translates into English as “Hey this thing is more than a vest, I put it on to defend my ideas.”

Engaging with the Data: What does their movement teach us?

  1. French protest culture runs deep and allows for some level of converging causes to overlap despite differences in approach. Note the strong support (over 50% over 6 months) on the below graph measuring four French political opinion polls.
Chart Source:

*the COVID -19 and confinement in France temporarily outlawed all public protests.

  1. Gilets Jaunes chalked up two years of popular, public activism with little centralized leadership and despite the sign of many gains.  Do they represent a new form of activism brought on by increased social media use? Assistant Professor Jen Schradie at Sciences Politiques Paris, says no. She writes, “The ‘gilets jaunes’ movement is not a Facebook revolution.” It is rather a populist movement that exploited the habitual communication tool of its time. More so, Gilets Jaunes followed in a traditional public display of French protest culture with significant gripes about current inequalities, yet it is “a popular movement (that) drives Internet use. Not the other way around.”
  2. Not unlike 1968, at times their movement converged sometimes paradoxically with others some groups included:
    1. Violent anarchist ‘black blocs’ whose aggressive means far surpassed those of consistent, yet less confrontational Gilet Jaunes protesters.
    2. Environmentalists who seek to reach climate change goals.
    3. Trade Unions.
    4. Students seeking to counter-measures to high school and university reform.
  3. Public debate about the current “tensions sociales” is a strong French value:
    1. The rapper D’Ace was not a Gilet Jaunes member and his once popular song criticizes some of their stances. Yet, he draws upon their plight to underscore that public debate is the foundation of French democracy ‘to defend my ideas.’
    2. As viewed in the above video filmed in 1968, excessive use of force by police is highlighted during these movements.  Public debate about the role of the state to maintain order is renewed and questioned in its wake.

Diving In, Part 3: The Sardines Movement in Italy

What has this nutrient-rich, small, oily type of fish got to do with social change and activism?

This multicolor print depicts a large sardine (comprised of smaller sardines) with various Italian landmarks (the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Vatican, the Colosseum) along its back.

In just a couple of months, the Sardines movement mobilized people through Facebook and other social media and organized thousands of participants into flash mobs and protests throughout Italy. The initiative was organized in mid-November 2019 in Bologna to challenge rising nationalism and particularly politician Matteo Salvini’s (head of the Lega party) populist radical-right agenda on the occasion of the launch of the candidate for Emilia-Romagna’s presidency in the regional elections. The name of this movement comes from how people were called to action and participated in this nonviolent protest: crammed in Bologna’s main square like sardines in a can.

The Sardines protest — named for how protestors were crammed in Bologna’s main square like sardines a can — November 2019 [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

This type of protesting (also characterized by its joyous and festive style) rapidly spread to other Italian cities and also across Europe and overseas. Just one week before the regional elections took place at the end of January 2020, 40 thousand sardines gathered again in Bologna to rally against Salvini.

Reflect and Engage: Review the short 5-step manifesto about how to change populist rhetoric listed on the Sardines website. Interestingly, the website is only available in Italian, so here are the 5 steps translated (by Google!). Remember what you learned about powerful signs and messages, in 1968 in Europe: Youth Movements, Protests, and Activism? How effective are these 5 steps? Write a comment for each one of them.

The Sardines’ manifesto in 5 steps:Your comments:

Also consider the photo gallery available at the bottom of the webpage: what is your sense about this movement? Is it different from others you know or have heard about before? Would a textbook grassroots movement like the Sardines ever happen in the U.S.?

Page Completion – Outcomes: 

Now that you have completed this page and the readings, videos, and activities within it, you should have strengthened your understanding of: 

  • The multi-layered and nuanced definition of activism
  • How socio-political activism has manifested itself in France and Italy in recent years 

Please share feedback on this page by taking this 5-question survey. Thank you!

Next: How do we move from fully fledged activism to community-level organization? What is local activism driven by and who or what determines when it is needed?

Citation for this page: Grazioli, B., Carnine, J. & Brandauer, S. (2020). Does grassroots organizing make change happen – in Europe? In E. Hartman (Ed.). Interdependence: Global Solidarity and Local Actions. The Community-based Global Learning Collaborative. Retrieved from

Further Reading

Le Sardine non esistono


6000 Sardines Association. (n.d.). 6000 sardine. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from

Davis, O. (2018, November 29). Gilets jaunes: why the French working poor are demanding Emmanuel Macron’s resignation. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from

Edwards, C. (2018, January 18). Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy’s Northern League. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from

Giuffrida, A. (2019, December 13). Sardines squeeze into Italian cities for biggest anti-Salvini protests yet. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from

Miah, A. (2009, March 20). Andy Miah: We’re all activists now. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from

Schradie, J. (2018, December 12). Debate: The ‘gilets jaunes’ movement is not a Facebook revolution. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from

Wikipedia contributors. (n.d.-a). Hervé Le Bras — Wikipédia. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from

Wikipedia contributors. (n.d.-b). Nicolas Hulot — Wikipédia. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from

Videos and pieces cited within the videos:

Carnegie Europe. (2019, June 25). Richard Youngs on his book “Civic Activism Unleashed” [Video file]. YouTube. Retrieved from

D. Ace Officiel. (2018, December 9). D.ACE – TENSIONS SOCIALES ( Freestyle gilet jaune ) [Video file]. YouTube. Retrieved from

Dickinson en France. (2020a, May 11). Gilets Jaunes [Video file]. YouTube. Retrieved from