After a third weekend of increasingly violent street protests, including the vandalization of the Arc de Triomphe, the French government announced it will temporarily suspend the carbon tax plan that sparked a populist revolt. President Emmanuel Macron thus slouches from the denial and anger stages of grief to bargaining. The media cannot help but be dragged along by events. But both may find the bargaining stage tricky.
Notably, Macron delegated his retreat to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who announced not only the carbon tax hike moratorium, but an alignment of gas and diesel taxes, a delay in gas and electricity tax hikes, and a possible increase in the minimum wage. Phillipe is a longtime fixture of the French right. His assignment reflects that Macron, who ran for the presidency as a right-leaning populist outsider, cannot credibly represent the government in the political and social crisis.
Bargaining With The Yellow Jackets
While a recent Harris poll showed 85 percent of the French people disapproved of the weekend’s violence, 72 percent supported the cause of the “yellow jackets,” named for the vests worn by motorists in an emergency. The same poll also registered overwhelming French disapproval of Macron’s arrogance and seeming authoritarianism. So Philippe it was.
Part of Philippe’s mandate was to bargain with representatives of the yellow jackets. As Stanislas Guerini, the leader of Macron’s parliamentary caucus, put it: “While there’s a debate, we stop writing, have a pause … there has to be a pause so the debate can happen.” Philippe envisions rounds of meetings with union and community representatives, as well as the citizenry.
But the yellow jackets largely remain a leaderless movement that sprung up through social media. A Tuesday meeting with Philippe was canceled because the unofficial representatives of the movement were threatened and denounced by other protesters. Some in the movement are demanding the cancellation of the green taxes. Parties of the far-right (National Rally, formerly the National Front) and the far-left (France Insoumise) want to use the demonstrations to advance their own agendas. It is unclear whether the government will find the right negotiating partners.
Nevertheless, the Macron government’s actions, even if they represent a mere effort to kick the can down the road, recognize that the heart of the crisis is the unpopularity of its climate change agenda.
Some may want to argue that any tax that bit as much into the French cost of living would have sparked some protest. Yet these taxes are structured as part of France’s “social charges.” The revolt stems in large part from the sense that people outside the cities are not getting social benefits they once did from their “social charges.” Green taxes that impose sharp and immediate pain without immediate benefits were precisely the type of tax to incite the populace.
The Establishment Media Attempts To React
Macron’s retreat also has forced the establishment media–– which preferred a more general anti-Macron narrative ––to adjust its coverage to the political facts on the ground. Granted, The New York Times (bless their hearts) are still trying to pretend the main issue is Macron’s half-hearted efforts to fix France’s sclerotic, over-regulated economy. But outlets like The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Reuters are mentioning the carbon tax and global warming near the top of their coverage, rather than burying it at the bottom of their inverted pyramids.
Even an outlet as left on the spectrum as The Guardian has run an article titled, “Macron’s U-turn on eco-tax rise gives green lobby fuel for thought.” Indeed it should, though the column itself suggests they have not yet begun to truly digest what for them is an undoubtedly unappetizing meal. Jonathan Watts, The Guardian’s global environment editor, goes so far as to notice the wreckage:
Dozens of countries and cities have introduced or drawn up plans for carbon taxes to speed the transition from fossil fuels that are warming the planet to increasingly dangerous levels. They are rarely easy to implement. There have also been protests and political backwards steps in Belgium, Tunisia, Algeria and Canada.
But the lesson he hopes will be drawn is that “other leaders will need better timing and a far defter political touch before they introduce similar measures to reduce carbon emissions.”
Watts and his intended audience may have more cause to consider a timeless adage from the world of advertising: sometimes the dogs just don’t want to eat the dog food. Regarding the timing, Watts suggests that “Macron … demonstrated poor timing by announcing a rise in diesel and petrol taxes after a year in which oil prices rose by 23% largely because of Opec limits on production.” In reality, world oil prices plummeted in recent months and stand roughly where they did in September 2017.
It is true that Macron has been all black thumbs with his green agenda. In the middle of the current tumult, Macron confirmed plans to shutter 14 French nuclear power plants, albeit not on the originally announced (and comically unrealistic) timetable. France is supposed to believe the world faces catastrophe as Macron shuts down scalable clean energy to rely more on wind and solar, which Macron admits are “intermittent” sources of power.
That inconsistency gets at the heart of the problem, from Macron, to Watts, to vocal celebs like Juliette Binoche: for all of their pretensions to be technocrats driven by science, they often speak and act as though their environmentalism is a religion. For them, climate change has ceased to be a problem to be solved so much as a sin for which the people must atone.
At some point, the elites will have to face up to the fact that a functioning meritocracy requires merit, not fanaticism. They need to bargain with themselves before they will succeed in bargaining with anyone else.