Over the past two weekends, France has been plunged into a widespread and sometimes violent populist revolt sparked by the Macron government’s green tax hikes on carbon and fuel, leaving two dead and over 750 injured.
More than 280,000 people took part in thousands of protests staged during the first weekend by “Yellow Jackets,” named after the neon security vests required to be worn by French drivers during roadside emergencies. Preliminary estimates suggest the number of protesters were roughly halved this past weekend, but they concentrated in its main cities. In Paris, police dispersed crowds with water cannons and tear gas as burning vehicles and debris blocked roads near the Champs Elysee.
What’s At Stake?
Earlier this year, Macron announced an increase in France’s carbon tax, meant to limit greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the government plans to raise the gasoline tax by 3.9 cents per liter and the diesel fuel tax by 7.6 cents per liter (which translates to nearly 30 cents a gallon in U.S. dollars).
These measures are intended to assist the government in meeting its goals for addressing climate change by encouraging people to use alternate forms of transportation. The diesel tax hike is intended to deter purchases of diesel-fueled cars, which are deemed “dirty” but more popular in France than in the United States.
These green taxes now account for 60 percent of fuel costs, but this is the tip of the spear for the Macron government, which would like to ban all sales of gasoline and diesel cars by the year 2040. Plus, the city of Paris has already declared war on the automobile. Unsurprisingly––at least to those outside Macron’s government––this agenda is proving wildly unpopular. Polls showed between 74 and 78 percent support for the protests.
Macron’s plans are particularly disliked in the nation’s suburbs, exurbs, and rural communities. After all, people have fewer transportation alternatives outside major cities. Polls show that roughly a third of French people are “very dependent” on their cars, and a roughly similar share is “somewhat dependent.” Moreover, the “social charges” of which these taxes are part do not seem to be financing the government services in these communities they once did.
The reaction against Macron’s plans began in May with an online petition but, in October, escalated to a call to block key motorways as part of a nationwide demonstration. Indeed, one of the most notable features of the Yellow Jackets movement is that, like the early stages of America’s Tea Party movement in 2009, it is a largely organic, leaderless network fueled by social media and found in all regions of the country.
Media Groupthink Distorts Real Issues at Play
The English-language media coverage has emphasized some aspects of this story and downplayed others in ways reflecting the conditions giving rise to the revolt. The BBC‘s headlines, for example, refer to a “French fuel unrest” sparked by “rising fuel prices.” Other outlets do slightly better, identifying taxes as the issue.
But in general, a reader will have to wade deep into any given story to learn even the suggestion of why the taxes are being increased. The Associated Press sympathetically reports that “Macron has so far held strong and insisted the fuel tax rises are a necessary pain to reduce France’s dependence on fossil fuels and fund renewable energy investments” in paragraph 15. France 24 will lead with anger over “rising fuel costs” and get around to obliquely noting the purposes of the taxes in paragraph nine. Politico might obliquely observe that any retreat by Macron “could earn the ire of environmental backers” in a paragraph in one story, while skipping it in other stories.
Moreover, in this second weekend, the media groupthink has settled on the narrative of the protests evolving into a more generalized protest of the Macron government. For example, the New York Times headline is “Tear Gas and Water Cannons in Paris as Grass-Roots Protest Takes Aim at Macron,” and its story proclaims “this broad-based, citizen-driven movement is among the most serious challenges yet to President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-business government.” The “government’s plan to discourage car use” appears briefly in paragraph eight.
Similarly, The Guardian reports “the movement, which began as a protest against rising fuel taxes, has grown into a wider outpouring over inequality, a political class seen as cut off from reality and the pro-business Macron’s persistently negative image as a ‘president of the rich’.”
Is This a Protest About Macron Himself?
There is some truth in this narrative. But the labored effort to cast the Yellow Jackets as a manifestation of left-wing populism alone is belied by the facts. Even the Times had previously reported that many of the non-urban protesters were disappointed Macron voters and others identified with the center-right in France. (It is easy to forget that Macron himself ran as an outsider.)
It is fair to say that part of Macron’s unpopularity (he is far less popular than President Trump) also has something to do with his efforts to reform France’s sclerotic labor market. But the protests against those measures were organized by major labor unions of a sort almost traditional in France. The spontaneously organizing, leaderless Yellow Jackets are an entirely different sort of animal, posing a unique challenge for Macron.
The whitewashing of green taxes as the precipitating cause of France’s populist uprising––from the Macron government to English-language media––betrays a political bias going beyond the cheaply partisan. Rather, it is part of an ongoing attempt, conscious or otherwise, by urban, neoliberal elites to dismiss the backlash to their social engineering by those living more traditional lives outside the bustling enclaves of global commerce.
In France, the most likely political beneficiary of this arrogance is the National Front. That should give the nation’s elites pause. Indeed, it should give the elites of the developed world pause generally. Instead, it appears the beatings will continue until morale improves.