[Marxism] ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests Shake France. Here’s the Lesson for Climate Change.
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,”
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.
More information about the Marxism