Special Briefing: What Do France’s Yellow Vest Protesters Want?

Special Briefing: What Do France’s Yellow Vest Protesters Want?

Why you should care

A mass uprising over fuel taxes could spell désastre for Macron’s climate hopes.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

What happened? After years of pushing diesel as a cleaner option than regular gas, France has acknowledged the fuel’s detrimental effects on air quality and made a U-turn. In response, diesel and gas prices have risen 23 and 15 percent, respectively, over the past year. With new taxes of 6.5 cents per liter on diesel and 2.9 cents per liter on gas — figures from Nov. 19 showed an average price of $6.32 per gallon in France, compared with $2.95 per gallon in the U.S. — car-dependent French citizens are fighting back as part of the growing gilet jaune (pronounced ZHEE-lay ZHOHN) movement, or Yellow Vest movement. More than 100,000 gathered across the country this past Saturday to protest not just rising fuel costs but also general tax hikes.

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A man sits in the trunk of his car bearing a banner calling for French president’s resignation during a blockade action of Caen’s circular road on November 17, 2018 in Caen, Normandy.

Source Getty Images

Why does it matter? The Yellow Vest protests, whose members wear the high-visibility vests all drivers are required to keep in their cars, have called into question the political viability of President Emmanuel Macron’s much-touted environmentally friendly policies. It’s not just fuel taxes; a carbon tax of $51 per ton of emissions instituted by Macron last year is thought to have increased fuel prices as well, with companies passing the added cost on to consumers. And with 73 percent of French people supporting the protesters, according to recent polls, the movement may push people away from Macron (whose popularity is at an all-time low of 26 percent) and toward far-right candidates, even though elections won’t be held until 2022.

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

Occupy Champs-Élysées. The leaderless protests are being compared to the U.S. Occupy movement, and there are some similarities: Many accuse Macron of focusing his policies on elites and businesses, slashing regulations and expecting the struggling working class to foot the bill. Meanwhile, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, defeated by Macron in the 2017 presidential elections 66 percent to 33 percent, encouraged protesters on Twitter, while far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon warned that the protests must be taken seriously. Government officials have expressed concern about activists from the extreme right infiltrating the protests and inciting violence. When 5,000 protesters gathered on the Champs-Élysées on Saturday, most demonstrated peacefully, but some set fires and threw rocks, prompting authorities to respond with tear gas. There were 19 reported injuries in Paris, compared with the 600 hurt and two killed last week in countrywide protests.

Hostile environment. Though Macron’s environment minister resigned without warning earlier this year over what he saw as insufficient progress in fighting climate change, Macron’s environmental policies have been aggressive compared with those in many other developed nations. The French government has pledged to ban gas-powered vehicles by 2040, and plans to raise carbon taxes from $35 per ton in 2017 to $98.50 per ton in 2022 in a bid to slow global warming. There are policies in place to help car-dependent working people switch to more eco-friendly vehicles, like a $2,840 bonus for drivers who ditch diesel cars or a $6,817 windfall for those who buy an energy-efficient car. But protesters say these measures won’t help them in the short term.

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Gilet jaune protestors during a protest against rising oil prices on the Champs Elysees in Paris, France on November 24.

Source Getty Images

Who’s in? While this has largely been labeled a populist workers movement, it’s failed thus far to get the support of many labor unions, some of which may be unnerved by the violence, reports of racist and homophobic abuse from protests and the growing association with the far right. But unions haven’t been very happy with Macron either: Many of his other policies are thought to have weakened worker rights, long held sacred in France, and given more power to private businesses. In fact, the French government is already trying to assess the impact of the fuel protests on France’s holiday shopping and tourism.

The future is now. A survey of European attitudes last year found that the French are significantly more concerned about climate change than neighboring countries, with 79 percent saying they worried about it compared with just 60 percent of Brits. Nonetheless, aggressive climate change policies — necessary, according to a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that forecast environmental devastation if huge turnarounds aren’t made by 2030 — aren’t always that popular with people unprepared or unable to make such lifestyle changes. China recently relaxed air quality targets due to economic concerns, almost immediately bringing toxic smog back to Beijing. Macron’s challenge, along with other environmentally responsible world leaders, may be to balance long-term thinking with short-term popularity.

WHAT TO READ

France’s fuel protests show how poor people can bear the cost of fighting climate change, by Annabelle Timsit at Quartz

“In an age of growing popular angst over the negative environmental impact of globalization and calls for government action on climate change, this weekend’s protests in France show that governments can pay a price when they choose to act — and that the heaviest burden of environmentally friendly policies is often borne by society’s least prosperous.”

It’s not surprising that fuel protests in Paris turned violent — the French establishment has long ignored social inequality, by Nabila Ramdani at the Independent

“The majority of those I spoke to were part of a forgotten France based in the suburbs of major cities or the countryside. They rely on very low incomes or benefits, and are mainly dependent on their cars to get them anywhere.”

WHAT TO WATCH

Will Macron Bow to the Demands of Yellow Vest Protestors?

“The government takes everything from us, they steal from us. We have to pay for everything.”

Watch on Al-Jazeera on YouTube:

France’s Yellow Vest Movement: Will It Last?

“This reminds me so much of, in 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement, where you had no leaders … very much like this. And it died, it melted.”

Watch on France 24 on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

A tempête in a teapot? Large-scale French protests, or “manifestations,” sure look impressive. But they don’t often lead to changes in leadership. The enormous May Day protests of 1968, for example, weren’t enough to oust conservative President Charles De Gaulle, whose party later won in parliamentary elections by railing against the youth revolt. De Gaulle did, of course, resign the following April after losing a referendum on local government reform.

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