President Macron’s petrol tax spike triggered an avalanche of protests across France. Eight people have died and hundreds have been injured – an unacceptable level of violence. And yet, according to polls, the protests are supported by a majority of the French public. What is the message for those who fight for green taxation and the transition towards a sustainable economic model beyond fossil fuels?
Most protests took place far from the big cities, in areas where cars are often the only way to get around. Rural regions have seen jobs moving to urban areas and ‘zone commerciales’ – hubs of activity on the outskirts of cities, thus forcing people to travel further to find work. As petrol bills run in the hundreds of euros a month, mostly just to get to work, many in France now say that “working is becoming a luxury”.
Let’s start with a few facts. The French consumers association CLCV reported that over the last ten years, the bills of petrol vehicle drivers raised 13% and even 26% for diesel vehicle drivers. Today, 60% of the price at the petrol and diesel pump is tax. Unlike some other governments, the French doesn’t make sure that the money raised by these taxes flows back to the people who need it the most.
The Gilets jaunes (yellow vests) are an explosion of anger from the “forgotten”, as the French newspaper Mediapart called them. There’s strong symbolism in the fact that by law all French car-users need to have a fluorescent yellow jacket in their car in order to be seen when things break down. Now that the whole social welfare state has broken down, waiting for a tow-truck that doesn’t seem to come, the broken ones let themselves be seen.
If you open France’s car hood you soon see that the problem is not the carbon tax, but the inequality around who it hits hardest. Tax injustices are everywhere. Taken together, Macron’s tax measures benefit the top earners while making the plight of low and middle-income families harder. Then there’s also the Panama and Paradise Papers, Swiss Leaks and so many other scandals exposed. They revealed that the rich do not pay taxes and are not sanctioned for avoiding them. The revelation that €600,000 was hidden away in a secret Swiss bank by the country’s former budget minister – whose job it was to tackle tax fraud – does not help to build trust between ordinary citizens and the political system.
While some in the media have highlighted the links between the yellow vest movement and the far right Front National party of Marine Le Pen, a comparison by Le Monde between the yellow vest’s 42 demands and the positions of political parties in France actually showed that the biggest overlap was found with left-party leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
What the events in France really show is that the transition to a low carbon economy needs to be a just transition, one that at the same time fights inequality and takes care of the people at bottom of the economic ladder. When the Gilets jaunes ask for a higher minimum wage and a tax system where those that are most able to pay also contribute most to stop climate change, who are we to disagree?
It would be short-sighted to see the conflict over who foots the bill for climate action and how we tackle inequalities as a French conflict. Across Europe, the top 10% income share has been rising since the 1980s. Top income tax rates in the US and UK were around 90% a long time after World War two, only to fall far under 50% in the last decades. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and rising inequality are major challenges for humanity. The Gilets Jaunes are a reminder to the whole of Europe and beyond that the current economic system is pushing both people and planet to burnouts. Reversing these trends requires holistic solutions. The future will be environmentally and socially friendly, or not be.