A surprise uprising of “yellow vests” in France has forced authorities to backtrack on a climate change policy, sparked riots and rattled the government.
By Robert Holloway
Three weeks of protests across France against tax increases on motor fuel and a day of rioting in Paris have left the government looking more vulnerable than at any time in the past 50 years.
The immediate effect and the likely longer-term consequences are dramatic, for France but also for the European Union.
More than 5,000 police were mobilised and all museums ordered to close on December 8 as part of emergency measures in Paris to prevent a reprise of riots a week earlier in which several buildings and dozens of cars were set ablaze and the monumental Arc de Triomphe defaced.
The riots, involving several hundred young men — many from extremist right or left groups — were the most violent since the student-led uprising in May 1968, which paralysed the economy and ended only with a threat from then-President Charles de Gaulle of military intervention.
Damage from the latest riots totaled three million to four million euros, according to Paris city hall. Luxury stores on the Champs-Elysées Avenue called in private security firms, adding to the likelihood of violent confrontation on December 8 in an atmosphere that some politicians and commentators described as insurrectional.
More than the riots, the protests — mostly consisting of barricades on main roads and at fuel depots manned by people wearing the high-visibility yellow vests that all motorists are required to have in case of emergency — exposed deep fractures in French society. Fractures between rich and poor, between Paris and the rural provinces, and between those who believe in traditional politics and those who reject them.
They have also dealt a blow to efforts to fight climate change by fiscal means and may well have an impact on elections to the European Parliament next May.
France is big. And people in the country need cars.
The yellow vest movement began in mid-November after the government announced new tax hikes on motor fuel to help finance a switch to less polluting vehicles. Due to take effect on January 1, the carbon tax increases were especially high on diesel, the fuel of choice in rural areas.
France has the most land area of any country in Europe — one and a half times the size of Germany and more than twice that of the United Kingdom — and most people living outside big cities rely on cars for transport.
Resentment was all the greater because the carbon tax hikes were announced when a surge in international oil prices had sent motor fuel costs to a new high.
They also followed an unpopular decision to reduce the speed limit on provincial roads from 90 to 80 kilometres an hour so as to prevent fatal accidents. Across France, speed limit signs were defaced and radar traps vandalised, recalling protests in November 2013 that forced the government of the time to scrap a proposed environmental tax on heavy trucks.
This government’s initial reaction to the yellow vests protests was to insist that — unlike its predecessors — it would not allow public protests to force it to change course.
But two days after the Paris riots, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe did a U-turn, announcing that the carbon tax would be suspended for six months, along with increases in gas and electricity prices and stricter controls on vehicle emissions.
By then, however, many yellow vests, smelling blood, were demanding that the government abandon a raft of other policies. They called for the re-imposition of a wealth tax, which was partially abolished late last year with the aim of getting the richest people to invest in French businesses rather than abroad. Some also called for increases in the legal minimum wage and in pensions.
Faced with a broadening of the yellow vest demands, Philippe took another step backwards and told parliament on December 5 that the carbon tax would not be enacted in 2019.
“The level of anger is such that we have many other things to improve,” he said, adding that the government was willing to discuss the wealth tax “with all the parties concerned.”
Will yellow vests contest elections for the European Parliament in May?
One of the government’s biggest difficulties is finding someone to speak for the yellow vests. Not only do they have no leader, many of them firmly believe they should not have one.
Some yellow vest protestors became well known via social media, including 10 who signed a letter to a newspaper urging fellow demonstrators to show moderation. But when they were invited to the prime minister’s office to negotiate, almost all declined, saying they had received death threats if they complied.
Sociologist Edgar Morin, writing in the newspaper Le Monde, commented that “the movement has no officers, no leader, no structure, no ideology, and this has allowed it to bring together anger, disappointment and frustration of various different kinds, be it that of the old-age pensioner, the farmer, the member of the (extreme right) National Rally or of the urban left-winger.”
Morin opined that this gave the yellow vest movement an initial force, but its “total lack of a guiding thought” would lead to its break-up.
Others disagree. Many yellow vests have said in interviews with reporters that this was their first experience of political action and that they had learned much while manning the road blocks. One of them, a 53-year-old manager of a small firm in the renewable energy sector who identified himself only by his first name, Eric, told Le Monde:
“The movement has evolved intelligently. People think and exchange opinions and realise that there’s a lot that’s wrong in France today.”
Some have aired the possibility of forming a movement to contest the European Parliament elections in May. The idea is not totally unrealistic, given the speed with which Emmanuel Macron put together the political movement En Marche (On the Move) that propelled him to the presidency in May last year and then secured him a huge parliamentary majority.
A “Jupiter-like” president
Tempers flared this week as the lower house of Parliament voted by 358 votes to 194 to back the government’s decision to scrap the carbon tax for next year.
Members of the left-wing France Unbowed party were accused of inciting insurrection, while the majority applauded the conduct of police in tackling violence in Paris. The leader of France Unbowed, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, mocked Macron for “trying to run France like a start-up” and for acting like “an elected monarch.”
That jibe is far from new. It was levelled at de Gaulle, who agreed to take office in 1958 on condition that France adopt a new constitution giving him far greater powers than those enjoyed by the leaders of most democracies. Those powers include the ability to dissolve parliament and, in exceptional circumstances, to rule by decree.
In sharp contrast to his predecessor and former boss François Hollande, who said he wanted to be “a normal president,” Macron has assumed the full authority of his office.
At first, that seemed to be what the public expected. But several of his remarks have backfired, and his fall from grace has been swift and deep.
Before he was elected, he told the business magazine Challenges that France needed “a Jupiter-like” president who would be above the political fray. He was quickly accused of comparing himself to Jupiter, king of the gods in Roman mythology, and the moniker stuck.
Bad news for the environment?
In June this year, he said France “spent crazy amounts of cash” on relief for poor people who remained poor. The money, he added, would be better spent on educating people to help lift them out of poverty. But it was the soundbite that caught people’s attention.
He has compared the French to “Gauls willfully opposed to change,” and he urged an unemployed man to “cross the road with me and I will get you a job”.
After his election, Britain’s The Economist magazine ran a front-page photo of Macron seeming to walk on water and the headline “Europe’s saviour?” The compliment was all the stronger because the photo included a pair of high-heel shoes belonging to hapless British Prime Minister Theresa May drowning in a sea of Brexit.
Today, the words “Macron resign” can be seen scrawled on yellow jackets and daubed on the walls of buildings in Paris. Opinion polls indicate that half the population wishes he would.
It is not just Macron’s reputation that has taken a battering.
Former Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot, the most popular member of the government before he resigned in August, described the scrapping of the carbon tax as “a courageous decision” but “bad news” for the environment partly because “it will make it more difficult for France to make its voice heard on climate change.”
Other environmentalists were more outspoken and called for an end in 2019 to the tax exemption on airline fuels.
The French Federation of Environmental Energy Services, which groups more than 500 companies, said the decision was “very bad news and poor economic judgement” because the carbon tax was the only tax that would incite businesses to invest in job-creating renewable energy sources.
Robert Holloway had a long career at Agence France-Presse as a journalist and editor before becoming director of the AFP Foundation, the international media training arm of the global news agency. A British-born French citizen, he joined AFP in 1988 and served as Sydney bureau chief, foreign editor, head of the English desk in Paris, United Nations correspondent in New York, deputy managing editor and acting editor in chief.