The bonnets rouges ("red caps") movement began in October 2013 in Brittany. It was a protest movement, largely targeting a new tax on truck transport (billed as an "écotaxe" by the government). This tax was to be enforced in part by gantries set up on highways to detect vehicles carrying heavy loads and the presence of the required billing apparatuses. Through a combination of demonstrations and violent actions, including the destruction of many of these tax gantries, the movement forced the French government to rescind the tax.
The protesters considered the tax harmful to Breton agriculture, which was already having a difficult time competing with its counterparts in Europe. They wore red caps, in reference to the seventeenth century revolt of the papier timbré which was particularly active in Brittany, though the Phrygian cap as a protest symbol goes back much further.
Hundreds of red-cap-wearing demonstrators protested against the highway tax gantry at Pont-de-Buis on 28 October 2013, and during the course of the protest a demonstrator had his hand blown off when he picked up a grenade thrown by law enforcement.
Soon after, the French government announced that it would be temporarily suspending the new tax until 2015 at the earliest.
This did not satisfy the demonstrators, who went on to destroy more than two dozen tax gantries and many smaller radar-camera-like outposts, by the first week of November. These would typically be destroyed by fire, often by filling tires stacked at their bases with flammable material and lighting them. Sometimes, less-destructive means were used, such as wrapping the radar cameras in plastic and topping them with bonnets rouges of their own.
By late November, 46 tax radars and gantries had been destroyed and other anti-tax groups were beginning their own direct action, including farmers and equestrians who disrupted traffic in Paris with their tractors and horses.
At the end of November, the movement massed in Carhaix and simultaneously used shipping trucks to blockade highways throughout France. At one point the demonstrators held an auction at which they sold off bits and pieces of previously-destroyed road tax gantries as souvenirs.
In an amusing moment, a hundred employees of Ecomouv, the quasi-private company responsible for collecting the new tax, held a holiday party in Metz. Posing for a group photo in front of the company offices in their Santa Claus hats, police mistook them for a demonstration of the bonnets rouges, and they quickly intervened.
By January, the number of highway tax and radar-ticket machines destroyed had topped 200. This had the desired effect. In 2013, for the first time since ticket-giving radar cameras had been installed in France, the number of tickets issued by the machines declined.
The government made its first big counterattacks in the Spring. Eleven suspected bonnets rouges were arrested and charged with conspiracy in April. The following month, the government convicted Samantha Prime of participating in the destruction of a radar outpost.
Destruction of highway tax gantries, however, continued. The eleven conspirators were convicted and sentenced to between four and 18 months imprisonment, along with a total of about €10,000 in fines. The same day the sentences were declared, farmers in Brittany invaded the city of Morlaix, dumped their produce in big piles in the streets, set fire to the tax office, and blockaded the area to keep fire trucks from responding.
In September and October, three other French tax offices were put to the torch, and French tax officials complained of feeling threatened.
The French government finally decided, in late October, to abandon the hated tax entirely. The cost to the government was enormous. In addition to the loss of anticipated revenue from the tax (€390 million per year) and the property damage and other costs associated with the demonstrations, the government was required to pay compensation to Ecomouv, the quasi-private company that had contracted to administer the tax, and others — nearly one billion euros in all.
- “France delays ‘ecotax’ on road transport after protests” MENAFN 29 October 2013
- “France’s Hollande defies Breton tax protest” Reuters 6 November 2013; “Lorry spy destroyed in green tax protest” The Times 6 November 2013
- “Haut-Doubs: les six radars déguisés en «Bretons»” Le Républicain Lorrain 15 November 2013
- Willsher, Kim (2013-11-24). "French horse riders take tax protest on to streets of Paris". The Guardian.
- “Bretagne : les Bonnets rouges gagnent le pari de la mobilisation” L’Obs 30 November 2013; “Manifestations anti-écotaxe : la liste des barrages routiers dans toute la France” MYTF1 News 29 November 2013
- "Ecotaxe : les Bonnets ont réussi leur démonstration". Les Echos (in French). 30 November 2013.
- "Des salariés d'Ecomouv qui fêtaient Noël pris pour des bonnets rouges". Libération (in French). 20 December 2013.
- “Fronde des Bonnets Rouges : plus de 250 radars vandalisés en trois mois” Network Visio 17 January 2014
- Duportail, Judith (2013-12-17). "Radars : en 2013, les automobilistes ont été moins flashés". Le Figaro (in French).
- “Radars bretons. Un sur quatre a disparu” Le Télégramme 20 April 2014; “Bonnets Rouges: 11 défèrements devant le procureur de la République” Seizh 20 April 2014
- “Samantha Prime, symbole des Bonnets Rouges, va à nouveau comparaître ce lundi à Saint-Malo” France 3 Bretagne 18 May 2014
- "French farmers torch tax office". BBC News. 2014-09-20.
- “Ras-le-bol-fiscal : Quatre perceptions ont brûlé depuis la rentrée” économie matin 3 October 2014; “Les agents des impôts craignent d'être les victimes de la «fronde fiscale»” Le Figaro 2 October 2014
- Rémi, Barroux (20 February 2015). "L'abandon de l'écotaxe coûtera près d'un milliard d'euros à l'Etat" [The abandonment of the eco-tax will cost the state nearly 1 billion euros]. Le Monde (in French).