France's 'Yellow Vest' Protests Like The Tea Party, But For Carbon Taxes And Really Violent
France was literally in flames this weekend. President Emmanuel Macron returned to violent protests on Paris streets after watching Donald Trump make a fool of himself in Argentina. He's had better weekends.
So why are the French suddenly behaving like common rugby fans? It has to do with Macron's policies for addressing climate change. You might recall after what passes for our president withdrew from the Paris Agreement, Macron rebuked him in a televised address where he declared his commitment to "make our planet great again." Macron has pledged to ban all gasoline-fueld cars by 2040, when we still won't have flying ones. He wants France to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 while simultaneously boosting the use of clean energy. All very cool ... but (you know that was coming) earlier this year, Macron announced tax increases on fuel, effective next year: Gas prices would rise by 12 cents a gallon (I'm speaking American here for your convenience) and diesel prices would rise by 24 cents a gallon. Turns out that tax increases and higher fuel costs aren't any more popular in France than they are in the US. Also turns out that tax protesters in France, like in the US, tend to be assholes.
At least 280,000 protesters took to the streets across France in November, objecting to these proposals. During the demonstrations, highways were blockaded and cars were set aflame. More than 400 people were injured in a movement named "Gilets Jaunes." That sounds like a Jean-Luc Godard film but the English translation is the less romantic "Yellow Vests." The protesters wear the safety apparel French drivers are required to carry in case of emergencies or, I guess, widespread protests over environmental policy.
"Yellow Vests" are reportedly a grassroots movement, organized through social media, with no wider political agenda or connection to other groups. In perhaps an eerie parallel to recent US history, the protestors are upset over what they view as either Macron's disconnect from or total indifference to the struggles of working people and vanishing middle class in France. Thus, it's a movement of class identity -- an urban/rural divide -- more so than one easily categorized as coming from the right or left.
Vandals joined the protestors this weekend because vandals are opportunistic ghouls and that's what they do. People burned cars and smashed store windows in wealthy Parisian neighborhoods. The police reported the protestors threw hammers and steel ball bearings at them. (Of course, any one could put on a yellow vest and spread havoc.) The cost of the damage from more than 250 fires that destroyed cars and burned several buildings was being assessed Sunday, but my unofficial estimate is that it'll be "a lot."
Far more devastating is the shocking number of wounded (260 nationwide, at least 133 in Paris alone). Three people have died over the past three weekends since protests began.
"It is out of the question that each weekend becomes a ritual of violence," a government spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, said in an interview on Europe 1.
Macron toured the wreckage and was met with both boos and cheers. There was graffiti on the Arc de Triomphe targeting Macron as the "president of the rich." Others ranged from the more direct "Macron Quit" to the more disturbing "We cut off heads for this."
It wouldn't be a national crisis if Macron's political foes didn't try to exploit it. Marine Le Pen, who lost last year's election to Macron, derided his administration as being "the best in policing the world" but "very bad" at ensuring peace at home. She's proposed dissolving the National Assembly, which would accomplish little other than potentially benefiting fringe parties like Le Pen's or her counterpart on the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Former socialist French president François Hollande chatted up "Yellow Vest" protestors last week and boasted about how he raised the minimum wage when in office and insisted that he would "never have abolished the wealth tax." Hollande's own approval rating was a dismal 4 percent (not a typo) in 2016, which is why he chose not to run for a second term.
These are scary times, and it can't just be about gas prices. There's a growing class and cultural divide in France, and the center might not hold. The result could be catastrophic.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."