[Marxism] ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests Shake France. Here’s the Lesson for Climate Change.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 7 15:44:17 MST 2018

NY Times, Dec. 7, 2018
‘Yellow Vest’ Protests Shake France. Here’s the Lesson for Climate Change.
By Alissa J. Rubin and Somini Sengupta

PARIS — Vincent Picard describes himself as a “militant ecologist.” But 
when protesters took to the streets to express their rage over a planned 
increase in France’s fuel tax, Mr. Picard joined their ranks.

He acknowledges that the tax might encourage the conservation considered 
critical for a healthy planet. But with the nearest train station 35 
minutes away, he has to drive to work every day.

“I am conscious that we have reached the end of fossil fuels and that we 
have to modify our habits,” said Mr. Picard, a 32-year-old pastry maker 
from northern France. But, he added, “You have to continue to live.”

The gas tax is part of an effort started by France in 2014 to regularly 
raise the tax on fossil fuels to fight global climate change.

The so-called Yellow Vest protests against the tax increase have become 
the biggest obstacle yet to such attempts to encourage conservation and 
alternative energy use. The protests point to the difficulties facing 
nearly all industrialized countries committed to pulling the world back 
from the cliff’s edge of catastrophic climate change.

France’s cancellation of the tax increase this week in the aftermath of 
increasingly violent protests signaled the perils and political 
headwinds that governments worldwide may face as they try to wean their 
citizens from fossil fuels.

There is little doubt among scientists and economists — many of whom are 
in Poland for the current round of climate negotiations — that putting a 
price on carbon is essential in the effort to reduce fossil fuel 
dependence. The question is how to design a carbon tax, and how to 
cushion the blow for the most vulnerable.

Many analysts say the French tax was not politically deft, falling 
hardest on people outside French cities who were already feeling the 
pain of stagnating incomes and who do not have the same mass 
transportation options as urban residents.

But successfully passing carbon taxes is an increasingly delicate 
balancing act, with the biggest single obstacle still the pushback from 
the fossil fuel industry and its supporters.

Canada, for example, recently offered rebates to offset a planned carbon 
tax, helping people adjust to the change. But conservatives have pledged 
to undo Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan, saying it could cause 
economic damage, and only six of 10 provinces are going along with it.

The French in the past have been far more tolerant than most societies 
in accepting high taxes on gasoline and diesel fuels. The cost of a 
gallon of gas in France is about $6 or more — with taxes accounting for 
about 60 percent of that — compared with about $3 on average in the 
United States, where high fuel taxes have been a nonstarter.

But the French government’s tax increase, written into law before 
President Emmanuel Macron was elected, proved a tipping point for 
hard-pressed families already laboring under some of Europe’s highest 
overall tax burdens.

Rather than spurring the effort to cut fossil fuel use, the misstep now 
threatens to set it back.

It angered those who can least afford to pay more to get to work and 
drop off their children at school. Fossil fuel champions — including 
President Trump — denounced the tax. And the backlash over it landed 
with a thud during the critical United Nations climate change 
negotiations underway in Poland, which Édouard Philippe, France’s prime 
minister, was forced to skip because of bubbling unrest at home.

More than that, the decision this week to annul the tax increase came 
after protests nationwide turned violent, causing four deaths and 
millions of dollars in damage, and injuring more than 250 people.

If nothing else, the maelstrom in France showed that the political 
challenge of how to create incentives for people to move away from 
fossil fuels requires much more than raising a tax on gas at the pump or 
subsidizing solar panels.

Of the 34 billion euros, or $39 billion, that the French government is 
expected to raise this year from the fuel tax, less than a fourth is 
earmarked for measures that could help people of modest means transition 
to less-polluting transportation, said Daniel M. Kammen, a professor at 
the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in energy policy.

Much more of the fuel tax proceeds, Mr. Kammen said, could be used to 
lower the prices of electric vehicles, including taxis, to help make 
them more affordable for commuters in areas without public 
transportation. Or they could be used to develop more charging stations 
or subsidize big batteries to enable taxis to do long trips.

“So while President Macron has highlighted the need for funds to invest 
in clean energy, that is not actually what was planned,” Mr. Kammen said.

Politically, the backlash came from those who could least afford to give 
up their cars — small-town and suburban residents priced out of big 
cities and unhappy with Mr. Macron on a host of other issues already. It 
did not help that Mr. Macron had lowered taxes on the rich in one of his 
earliest tax code changes.

“This situation illustrates how equity and fairness considerations have 
to be built into the design of such policies,” Alden Meyer, policy 
director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said by email from the 
United Nations climate talks.

What France’s experience has made clear, analysts say, is that fuel 
taxes work best as part of a more comprehensive plan that tries to 
offset the disproportionate pain felt by lower-income workers who can 
least afford the changes.

Mr. Picard, the pastry chef, for instance, earns €1,280 a month, or 
about $1,450, after payroll taxes. For him, the planned tax increase of 
6 or 7 cents per liter of gas “is enormous,” he said.

“Imagine how violent this tax is for those people who earn less than me 
and who are not conscious of environmental needs,” added Mr. Picard, who 
lives in Woincourt, a village of 500 people.

Coal miners carrying a painting of St. Barbara, the patron saint of 
miners, in Pawlowice, Poland, this week during United Nations climate 
talks there.CreditSean Gallup/Getty Images
But if those struggles are unfamiliar to Mr. Macron, a millionaire and 
former investment banker, many who study climate change goals sympathize 
with the Yellow Vests and support making relief part of the package.

“Everybody loves to talk about climate goals and preserving the 
environment, but nobody is talking about the now,” said Vonda Brunsting, 
a researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School who works on environmentally 
responsible investment policy.

“Some governments are intent on having ambitious plans for meeting the 
Paris climate conference goals, but they have to survive politically 
long enough to put them in place,” she added. “Macron and the French 
government have skipped over the part involving the workers and the 

Among the forms of help that economists point to are offering subsidies 
to encourage people to use less-polluting forms of energy, and expanding 
transit networks rather than closing them.

Another element, especially in France, is increasing workers’ disposable 
income by pushing for higher wages and adjusting fixed incomes for the 
elderly so that they can better afford energy-efficient technology.

“We are in the transition period and the government has run into 
political economic problems,” said Philippe Aghion, an economist at the 
prestigious College de France who advised Mr. Macron during his 
presidential campaign. “So you need to smooth out this period. You need 
to reach out a hand to help people across the bridge.”

He believes a number of countries may have to violate the European 
Union’s 3 percent cap on annual deficits so that they can borrow more to 
fund their energy transitions.

The cap “was not designed for countries undergoing structural reforms,” 
he said.

Camilla Born, who analyzes energy policy at the research and advocacy 
group E3G, said that while Mr. Macron could be faulted for not putting 
in place social measures that would allow French citizens to “ride out 
the challenges of change,” the price of inaction was ultimately far more 

“The reason we need to take action,” she said, “is because the social 
and economic costs of climate impacts are far worse.”

Alissa J. Rubin reported from Paris, and Somini Sengupta from New York. 
Elian Peltier contributed reporting from Paris.

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