Rising price of baguettes is fuelling public unrest in France. As history shows, govt

In the current public unrest in France over the rising price of the baguette are echoes of what happened 232 years ago. Back then, the fact that a staple had been priced out of the reach of the masses led to the French Revolution and the dramatic, bloody collapse of the ancien régime. The situation isn’t quite so dire right now — the president of the French Confederation of Bakeries and Pastry Shops has said that unlike then, bread is still available, even if it’s more expensive.

Around the world, the unaffordability or non-availability of food has, from time to time, led to mass unrest, and even the collapse of governments. Bread riots had preceded the fall of the Bastille in 1789, which was stormed in part because the starving sans culottes were looking for grain. Similarly, in 1918 a precipitous rise in the price of rice caused riots in Japan, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Terauchi Masatake and his cabinet. And consider how frequently that Indian pantry staple — the onion — has caused electoral convulsions: From fuelling public anger against Indira Gandhi’s government in the pre-Emergency months to powering her resurgence in the 1980 general elections. Onion price rise was also one of the factors in the ousting of the BJP in the 1998 Delhi Assembly elections.

France’s current surge in the price of the baguette is due to bad harvests in Russia, which have led to a global rise in the price of wheat. Greater energy prices have also made ovens more expensive to operate and the heat is being felt by the nation’s famous boulangeries, as well as the average consumer of the long, baton-shaped bread which is seen as an icon of French culinary heritage. As history teaches us, when people complain about basic foodstuff being unaffordable, governments can’t just ask them to eat cake.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 29, 2021 under the title ‘Bread or blood’.

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