Protecting the environment plays a tangential role in the violent protests sweeping France since November 17, reaching a crescendo on Saturday, December 1. Donning the bright yellow vests required in French cars in case of a flat or other emergency, drivers all over the country are in the streets protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s new set of taxes aimed at curbing auto emissions. And even people who don’t own a car feel the solidarity and are joining in, to express their anger over another economic pressure on the middle, working and lower classes.
French oil company Total’s headquarters, Paris. Photo: Danica Jorden
In a nod to the 2015 United Nations Climate Conference (COP21) and its Paris Accord, which attempts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, the French government decided to raise taxes on automobile fuel prices substantially by over 20 percent. Cutting subsidies on more-polluting diesel fuel, which is popular in France for older cars, will drive diesel prices even higher. Tax credits and subsidies are on offer to purchasers of new fuel-efficient cars, especially electric ones.
While visitors to Paris marvel at the efficiency of the Métro trains that encircle the City of Light’s tourist sites and fashionable neighbourhoods, the non-élite live farther afield. A small one-bedroom apartment of 50 m² in less desirable eastern Paris costs at least a million euros to buy and rents for more than €1,500 plus expenses. It’s not much less expensive in other cities in France. Minimum wage in France is €554 a month.
There is train service throughout France, but it is costly and plagued by long delays and frequent cancellations. “Make sure you demand a refund,” admonished a fellow traveller in a huff as she ran off to make other arrangements after a 4 hour delay ended in a train being taken out of service.
Working class people, families with children, the handicapped, elderly and others in outlying areas and small towns must make do with the least expensive means of transport to get to work, doctors, school, shopping and appointments. And that often means an older diesel car.
In Paris, the protests have turned destructive and violent with at least one death, 133 wounded and about 400 arrests. Tear gas clouds the air on the Champs Elysées near the Arc de Triomphe and Avenue Kléber is blocked by burned out vehicles, while fire fighters try to put out blazes around the Opéra. At the foot of the world’s most luxurious shops and restaurants, hundreds of angry, yellow-vested protestors are covering their faces and picking up and hurling paving stones.
While protestors are travelling to Paris to make their voices heard, there are also demonstrations throughout France. Similar scenes are taking place in Toulouse, yellow-vested workers shovelled cement and dirt in front of tax offices in Limoges and Total gas stations in St Chamond, and traffic has been blocked on the A47 highway to Lyon. In Aix-en-Provence, yellow vests lifted a toll booth barrier and let drivers onto the A8 highway for free. Meanwhile on the shores of the Mediterranean, drivers are continuously honking their horns at a central traffic circle in Montpellier while crowds are gathering all around Marseilles. Speaking to French newspaper “Libération”, Marseilles residents Caroline and Damien believe the protests have reached all people, crossing racial, ethnic and economic divisions, and are not only about the gas hike. “The president of the Republic is paid even after he’s out of office for the rest of his life,” explains Damien, “but when you earn €1,500 a month and lose your job, you’re left with nothing really fast.”
Employees may have greater protections in France than in other countries but it is increasingly more common to be hired on a temporary contract than to be considered a regular employee.
Both the political right and the left have accused each other of being protest “casseurs” (hooligans or instigators). Interior Minister Christophe Castaner insists that ultra right-wing opponent Martine LePen stirred up the protests, but admits that most of the people arrested were ordinary citizens he believes to have been merely inspired by far right groups. LePen retorted that “The minister does not seek peace and order but in reality wants the situation to get worse and take advantage of it.” The real problem, however, is an out-of-touch government courting favour with the world on the backs of the people.
In Marseilles, yellow vest spokesperson Paul Marra told BFM-TV “It’s been so many years that we have listened and so many years that we have not been listened to,” while his friend held up a cel phone photo of an almost empty refrigerator and said it belonged to a mother of three children. Marra said the real hooligans are in the government and spoke about uniting the yellow vests with orange-vested Banque Alimentaire (Food Bank) workers. The national charitable organization is out on their annual effort to collect food donations and serve meals to the poor. When asked if the protestors’ road blocs will disrupt the collection, Marra replied, “The yellow vests will help the orange vests this weekend. For all those who are suffering, we’re not only not going to block them, we’re going to help them.”
Tomorrow marks the first day of COP24 in Katowice, Poland. Since the Paris Accord of 2015, emissions and pollution have continued to worsen, culminating in the United Nations’ dire warning in October that the world has only 12 years to contain climate catastrophe. Automobile exhaust is an important contributor to air pollution, but this fuel tax inordinately hits people of moderate to low income who are already using as little gas as possible, cannot afford to live closer to where they need to go or buy a new, fuel-efficient car. Curbing industrial emissions through technology or degrowth, improvement in mass transit, urban planning and policies aimed at gentrification and investment real estate are alternatives.