What is civil disobedience?

Civil disobedience: definition

A form of collective resistance

Civil disobedience is a form of collective resistance, a peaceful revolt, which consists in the public refusal to submit to a law, regulation or authority considered unjust.

An act of civil disobedience is characterized by:

  • A crime committed knowingly and intentionally.
  • An action committed in public collectively.
  • Using peaceful methods without violence.
  • Acceptance of possible sanctions.

Actions to support a political, environmental or social cause

Civil disobedience is regularly used by citizens when other means of expression are not effective enough to bring about change. In general, acts of civil disobedience are justified by political, social, environmental or religious beliefs, and in particular by protest against inequalities and discrimination.

The goal is to achieve the repeal or modification of the contested norm without committing violence.

Examples of manifestations of civil disobedience in history

Civil Disobedience, The Engaged Work of Henry David Thoreau

The concept of civil disobedience appeared in 1849 in the work of the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau called “Civil Disobedience”. This citizen refused to pay American tax to protest slavery.

Gandhi’s Peace March

Later, in 1930, Gandhi set out with disciples and members of the press on a peaceful march of nearly 400 km to achieve the abolition of the salt tax. Civil disobedience was then adopted to fight for various causes: women’s suffrage, nuclear power or even the fight against slavery.

Environmental activist events

In France and everywhere else in the world today, civil disobedience has become a favorite tool of citizens belonging to environmental movements:

  • throwing soup at works of art in the National Gallery,
  • paint jets at the Hotel Matignon in Paris,
  • blocking in front of ministries in Germany.

These civil disobedience actions aim to condemn the inaction of governments in the face of environmental emergency. It is no longer the civil disobedience of the 20th century, essentially oriented towards the fight for equal rights, but civil disobedience in the service of environmental protection.

Actions such as Greenpeace against nuclear energy or José Bové’s “GMO harvesters” are becoming more frequent.


Right of veto: holders of rights and limits

How is civil disobedience manifested?

Civil disobedience can take different forms:

  • Blocking the road.
  • Interruption of a major sporting event.
  • Splashes of paint on monuments or works of art.
  • Occupancy of specific spaces (ministries, airports, etc.).


Defender of rights: in what case to confiscate it and how?

Is civil disobedience punishable by law?

Actions of civil disobedience may lead to legal action. Penalties for this type of behavior vary depending on the type of disobedience and where it occurred. They can take the form of fines, imprisonment or even criminal prosecution.

For example, the draft law for the 2024 Paris Olympics envisages prison sentences of up to six months and a fine of 7,500 euros for any trespassing in stadiums.

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