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A Tale of Two Frances: Parallels of 18th-Century and Contemporary Social Unrest

Updated: Apr 28

Paris, April 13, 2023 - Amidst the sea of protesters in France, as they rallied against the proposed retirement age increase from 62 to 64, it is impossible not to draw a comparison to the reign of Marie Antoinette, who presided over a country torn apart by social unrest during the 18th century. Today's events seem like a contemporary adaptation of the tragic tale of the ill-fated queen, depicting a nation struggling with inequality and a deeply divided populace.

The recent protests in Paris saw demonstrators storming the headquarters of LVMH, a luxury giant that owns brands such as Louis Vuitton and Moët, on the same day its shares hit a record high. Fabien Villedieu, a union leader, told CNN affiliate BFMTV outside the LVMH building, "If Macron wants to find money to finance the pension system, he should come here to find it."

This sentiment echoes Marie Antoinette's infamous statement, "Let them eat cake," which exemplified the divide between the ruling class and the general population in times of crisis. According to historian Caroline Weber, during Antoinette's reign, she was viewed as "the embodiment of the callous, indifferent monarchy that had long been deaf to the wishes and, eventually, the demands of the people" (Weber, 2018). The similarities between the resentment felt by the French populace at that time and the opposition to the retirement age increase today highlight a gap between the wealthy and the rest of the population, much like the social upheaval that defined the French Revolution.

Moreover, the protests across France drew around 380,000 attendees, with riot police intervening in clashes at Paris' Place de la Bastille, a place that still bears the memory of the storms of the revolution (CNN, 2022). The Bastille, once a symbol of oppression and tyranny, became the starting point for the wave of change during the French Revolution.

As France confronts these modern-day challenges, the parallels to Marie Antoinette's turbulent reign are indeed striking. The country is again grappling with widespread resentment and unrest, reminiscent of a historical period that led to irreversible transformation. Whether this transformation will follow the same path as the French Revolution is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, the similarities between the past and present reinforce George Santayana's famous adage: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (Santayana, 1905).


BFMTV. (2022). [Fabien Villedieu interview during the LVMH protest].

CNN. (2022). Protests and clashes over pension reform in France.

Santayana, G. (1905). The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress, Volume 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Weber, C. (2018). Proust's Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin de Siècle Paris. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Brinkley, A. (2010). The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, Volume 1. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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