[Marxism] France’s Yellow Vests Reveal a Crisis of Mobility in All Its Forms
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Fri Dec 21 10:13:49 MST 2018
NY Times, Dec. 21, 2018
France’s Yellow Vests Reveal a Crisis of Mobility in All Its Forms
By Michael Kimmelman
SENLIS, France — After more than a month of furious, antigovernment
demonstrations across France, it is easy to forget that a gasoline tax
set all this off.
A few cents per liter at the pump. A pebble in the sea of the French
economy. A step to address climate change, according to President
Of course, that’s not how millions of workers who depend on their cars
Mobility is the story of globalization and its inequities. Mobility
means more than trains, planes and automobiles, after all. It also
includes social and economic mobility — being too poor to afford a car,
being rich enough to transfer money out of the country. These are all
inextricably linked. Weeks of protests by the Yellow Vests have made
Many of these protesters, predominantly white working poor and
middle-class people who scrape by on their paychecks and pensions, live
in what the author Christophe Guilluy has called “peripheral France.”
The term is meant to imply both a state of being and the thousands of
small, struggling cities, towns and rural districts beyond the
inner-ring suburbs of places like Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon or Lille.
“As small businesses have been dying in these smaller cities and towns,
people find themselves forced to seek jobs elsewhere and to shop even
for basic goods in malls,” said Alexis Spire, a French sociologist.
“They need cars to survive, because regional trains and buses have
declined or no longer serve them. Once you begin to unpack the Yellow
Vest phenomenon, the uprising is a lot about mobility.”
Experts have been drawing parallels between the Yellow Vests and the
social rifts exposed by Donald J. Trump’s election in the United States
and Britain’s plan to leave the European Union. But there are also
larger trends at work in France, involving the evolution of cities, the
impact of cars, and the geography of race and class — trends rooted in
the postwar years.
In 1947, the book “Paris and the French Desert,” by a young geographer
named Jean-François Gravier, helped inspire Charles de Gaulle to
reorganize the country — decentralizing resources, redistributing
industry, promoting regional cities and creating new towns linked by a
nationwide web of publicly funded rail lines.
Modern, decentralized France spread a promise of prosperity and
mobility. For decades, the promise was kept. Until it wasn’t.
As a handful of big cities thrived with globalization, France’s regional
governments, saddled with more financial burdens, became caught in a
vicious cycle. Capital disappeared along with factories and jobs.
Revenues shrank, debts mounted and infrastructure declined.
Among the hardest hit services were the regional railways, run by the
French rail company, SNCF, which overwhelmingly invested in high-speed
trains that served the big, prospering cities and is now $56 billion in
debt. With service atrophying, people need their cars.
The gasoline tax “exposed a profound cultural fracture,” said Olivier
Galland, a director at the National Center for Scientific Research.
On a recent morning, I visited a highway roundabout at Senlis, in the
northern region of Oise, where two dozen Yellow Vest protesters huddled
around a trash-can fire, sipping cups of tomato soup. Passing drivers
honked in sympathy.
It’s no accident that the movement takes its name from the Day-Glo vests
that French motorists are required to keep in their vehicles. Like the
fuel tax, the vests are a burden imposed on drivers by the state, and,
for a population that has felt ignored, they also are an ideal,
ready-made tool for getting noticed.
“The government makes us pay for these ourselves,” Valérie Lemaire, one
of the protesters at the roundabout, said, pointing to her jacket and
stamping her feet in the freezing mud. “We pay, pay, pay.”
Oise is peripheral France. It includes Senlis, a pretty, prosperous
bedroom community. But it is also an area where deindustrialization and
inadequate public transit have taken a toll.
Just across the road from the Yellow Vest encampment is a new Amazon
depot, which offers warehouse jobs. This area used to have better-paying
factories. Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport — less than an hour’s drive
to the south on the highway, depending on traffic — is the major
employer these days. Creil, 15 minutes from Senlis, is a poor city of
35,000 with a largely vacant downtown and blocks of public housing. It
is home to many baggage handlers and airport security guards.
There’s no direct train to the airport, and buses are infrequent. So
people have to drive if they don’t want to trek into the middle of Paris
and then back out again. Avoiding the slower regional roads is also
costly, even without factoring in gas, because the French government
ceded authority over hefty highway tolls to a private company some years
A tollbooth is visible from the roundabout. The Yellow Vest protesters
stormed it in November — allowing traffic through without paying. “We
paid to build the roads with our taxes,” Christophe Bartel, a
47-year-old protester, told me. “Now we’re supposed to pay private
companies a fortune to use our own roads? It is a scandal. We’re fed up.”
The protesters also blockaded a nearby mall that has been drawing
business from city centers like Creil’s.
Claude Letranchant, 59, had scrawled a message on the back of his yellow
vest: “Ecology is only an alibi,” referring to the climate argument for
the fuel tax.
“I am a strong environmentalist,” Mr. Letranchant said. “Everybody here
is.” He waved toward the other protesters warming themselves by the
fire. They nodded.
“What Macron said about the fuel tax was only political,” Mr.
Letranchant insisted. “We don’t care for politics, only for each other.”
There’s no question Mr. Macron has made himself a convenient piñata for
the protesters. They saw him cut taxes for companies and the rich. They
saw airlines, spewing tons of carbon to move globe-trotters around,
paying no tax for fuel. They saw themselves being strapped with a
disconnected president’s commitment to meet European Union debt standards.
And they have stopped seeing themselves embraced by French intellectuals
and heroized in French movies and by labor unions, whose membership has
shrunk dramatically. They found themselves out of sight and out of mind
Which is why it is also impossible to separate the fury over the fuel
tax from housing prices, which have skyrocketed in big cities like
Paris, driving working people to areas where home prices are lower but
public transport much worse.
As Mr. Guilluy put it: “Mobility is liberty expressed through geography.”
“Working families in small cities and towns who used to send their
children to jobs and universities in big cities like Paris don’t have
the money to do that now,” he said. “A city like Paris prides itself on
being an open society, but to these people it has come to seem more like
a medieval castle, a place closed to the disenfranchised, who are made
to feel invisible.”
At the shabby train station in Creil, I came across Henri Djonga and his
2-year-old son, Andi, swaddled in a hooded coat. Every morning, Mr.
Djonga said, he takes a 5 a.m. train to Paris to work at a minimum-wage
job moving boxes. He used to live some miles away in Compiègne, he said,
but that required an extra two hours’ commute each day, so he and his
family settled in Creil, at greater expense.
“Trains are frequently delayed,” he told me. “The system is not
reliable. But it’s better than driving.”
He still pays to own a car because his wife and children can’t buy
groceries or get to school or pick him up from the station without one.
So he supports the Yellow Vests, he said, adding, “We all do in Creil.”
I asked how much of a difference it made that Mr. Macron has postponed
the fuel tax and promised an extra 100 euros a month — about $115 — for
those earning minimum wage.
Mr. Djonga shrugged. “Not enough,” he said and headed off with Andi
toward the shuttered streets.
Pierre Desorgues contributed reporting.
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