Gilets jaunes, écologistes ?

11 December 2018


One stray observation that I think has been lost in some of the discussion of the gilets jaunes movement. Now that the fuel tax increases have been cancelled and Macron has gone on to make other concessions, this may feel like old news. But since the movement has gotten unusual attention in the US, this is a point I want to make for the record. Across the political spectrum, from Donald Trump to Neera Tanden, it has been common to characterize the movement as a reaction against pro-climate policy. If this position has made the rounds on this side of the Atlantic, it’s to a large degree due to successful spin by right-wing media (especially since the mainstream newspapers have done a pretty good job of presenting the protests in a balanced manner). Leftist and social democratic commentators have been quick to point out an unfairness in demanding that it is unfair to place the burden of mitigating climate change on the poor and the precarious. But even if they’ve got good reasons to be angry, is the gilets jaunes’s radical expression of discontent really directed at right-headed climate policy?



The main initial driver of the gilets jaunes’ anger was the price of fuel, and specifically diesel. France had at one point made significant efforts to encourage the use of diesel, since it is more efficient than gasoline. After many French drivers made the switch, more recently policymakers have changed their tune on diesel out of a concern for its higher rates of emissions of harmful particulates. There is a subtle sense in which the gilets jaunes movement can be seen less as a full-on reaction against environmentalism, but rather a tension between environmental priorities which tracks France’s demographic divisions. Diesel particulates are a far greater concern for precisely the denser urban centers like Paris that this movement speaking for la France périphérique has made a target of its ire (speaking from experience, I can attest to the effect Paris’s pics de pollution can have on one’s health). Though France has set as its objective to be rid of combustion engines by 2040, Paris has vowed to outlaw diesel as early as the next decade. For people who live in areas without access to high-quality urban or intercity transit, the areas where support for the gilets jaunes is strongest, many people may feel they have done what their government has told them was the environmentally friendlier choice by driving diesel. Now, they are angry to see such concern for the lungs of Parisian métro users while they have had to pay a price for having to rely on their cars.


Photo Credit: (vincent desjardins), France, Pas-de-Calais, Trépied : architecture ” station service “, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


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  • Geof says:

    A very insightful post, as usual. But while I agree with the points made, I think they miss the real root causes: the French economy. As Prof. Goldhammer points out in another article here, the fuel tax works out to less than 1% for even the lowest income level. The problem is that the Yellow Vests can’t afford their lifestyles WITHOUT the tax and thus, the levy’s real impact is as a Reminder of that. Will rescinding the tax take the wind out of the protesters’ sails? For the moment, probably. Until the next Reminder comes along.

  • Daniel says:

    Excellent points made in this blog

  • Anonymous says:

    I’m curious as to what soft of lifestyle we are talking about, having just returned from Havana, Cuba, where conditions are dire for most people. There is the most basic health care and not much more; the government gives out rice and beans, while people make do with what eggs they can find to add a bit of protein to their diets. The pharmacies, the butcher shops , the grocery stores have little on the shelves. The safety net in France is a paradise in comparison. Let me be the devil’s advocate and suggest that part of the problem is a fundamental fact of the mentality of the “classes populaires” –the view that there is always someone richer who can foot the bills, and is not being taxed enough.
    Note the level of foreign investment in France: not much.
    I wonder at the readiness with which the commentariat assumes that the “gilets jaunes” are victims of Macron’s efforts to stimulate the French economy. I am reminded of the drastic austerity programs enacted in Ireland and the Baltic when their economies tanked. One Baltic leader, asked about how people reacted to his plea for support for the necessary cuts to bring his country’s budget into balance said “Compared with Stalin, this is nothing.”

  • Keith Roberts says:

    I think the lesson for Macron and other democratic leaders of good will is that, especially in this age, it is crucial for leaders to explain how what they are doing helps the people who have suffered the most from the changes in economic and social structure that every advanced economy has experienced. The failure to do this was Obama’s biggest fault, and I suppose one could make the same case for the liberal leaders of all the other democracies experiencing the anger of the disenchanted.

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