Since the middle of November 2018, France has gone through a period of social unrest. This has been especially prominent in the capital, Paris. The riots were of an intensity rarely seen in the last forty years. It all started in reaction to a government proposal to increase taxes on petrol for cars, as part of a broader ‘ecological transition’ legislative package.
The citizens’ movement ‘Les Gilets Jaunes,’ or ‘yellow vests,’ vehemently criticized the reform as disproportionately affecting the poorest, rural parts of the population whose cars are vital for them to commute to work. What is striking about this movement is that it started and expanded through social media with no central instigators nor oversight. It started spontaneously without the initiative of any political party. People decided to express their discontent by wearing the yellow safety vests which are mandatory to have in every car in France, and gathered to block roads, highway tolls, etc.
The movement then formalized itself, appointed representatives and established a minimum of hierarchy. What started out as a distinct protest has turned into a battle of fundamental societal values and a more general critic and rebuttal of President Emmanuel Macron’s tenure and reforms. All parties of the opposition have expressed their support to the movement and polls show that a vast majority of the French people agree with the anger of the Gilets Jaunes, considering their efforts legitimate.
The crisis has caused a blockade of the country over five weekends in a row, resulting in major disruptions of public services and has been criticized for the violent derives caused by ‘casseurs,’ for ‘breakers’ or ‘destroyers.’ These people were not necessarily affiliated with the movement and took advantage of the fact that the police was overburdened to perpetrate criminal acts, such as burning cars, sacking shops, damaging public buildings and monuments. These included the graffities on the Arch of Triumph and the sack of boutiques on the Champs Elysées.
On November 17, more than 280,000 protesters took the streets across the country. The number steadily decreased to 66,000 on December 15. Throughout the uprising, more than 1,000 people got wounded, four died and more than two thousand got jailed.
The Finance Minister of France, Bruno Lemaire, condemned the destructions, calling the event a ‘catastrophe for our economy.’ He particularly emphasized the threat to small and medium shops ahead of the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, as well as to tourism, especially in Paris. Overall, the events are expected to have caused a 0.1% loss of GDP growth for the last quarter of 2018. They also have had a negative impact on the Euro currency.
On Monday 10 December, President Macron addressed the nation during a 13-minute televised speech aiming to deescalate the situation. He essentially ceded to the streets’ clamour, saying ‘I take my share of responsibility for this,’ that the protests and concerns of the Gilets Jaunes were ‘deep, and in many ways legitimate’ but condemned the disruption caused by the casseurs. He then went on to propose a number of measures to answer the protests of the Gilets Jaunes:
An increase of EUR 100 of the minimum wage; de-taxing overtime work for 2019; mandating employers to pay end of year bonusses; an exemption from a tax on pensioners that was soon to enter into force for people living under EUR 2,000/month. However, Macron emphasized said that he would not reinstate the full ‘wealth tax’ which he partially scrapped at the beginning of his mandate.
The reactions from the Gilets Jaunes were mixed. Some hardliners were disappointed, because they wanted him to resign. The more moderate members acknowledged the effort and called for a stop of the protests until the end of the year. One interesting proposal by the gilets jaunes is to extend the existing constitutional mechanism of ‘referendum of citizen’s initiative’ to permit the people to trigger itself the abrogation of a law.
The reactions from the opposition parties were consistent across the political spectrum, with far-right Marine le Pen and far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon condemning his answers, deploring that he was a ‘President for the rich’ and that his concessions were too vague. It has also been pointed out that the reforms put forward by Macron would cause difficulties for France to meet the EU deficit rules for 2019, thereby emboldening the Italian populist government in its budgetary brawl with the European Commission.
This case provides interesting food for thought concerning how the accomplishment of the sustainable development goals of climate action can be difficult to combine with social justice and equality. The main ideological reflection stemming from this series of events is that public opinion, at least in France, does not accept that the poorest in society be expected to bear the burden of the ecological transition of the economy. Essentially, President Macron is learning that taxing the poor to ‘make our planet great again’ is not the way forward.
This crisis shows that when drafting fiscal measures to combat climate change, the social impact of these measures should be carefully assessed beforehand. One external factor that Macron may have not anticipated is the global increase of oil prices which put gasoline on the protester’s fire of discontent, and caused him to be mocked by Presidents Trump and Erdogan. This crisis risks to seriously jeopardize President Macron’s ambition for the European Elections in May 2019. It remains to be seen how Macron’s Presidency will recover from this crisis, given that members of the opposition have expressed their will to turn the vote into an ‘anti-Macron referendum,’ and that the movement seems to be spreading across Europe in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and others.