Climate Politics after the Yellow Vests

Climate Politics after the Yellow Vests

Far from being anti-environment, the gilets jaunes have exposed the greenwashing of Macron’s deeply regressive economic and social agenda.

“It’s well and good to tell people who are making €1000 a month to change their car, but they can’t,” says Elsa, a thirty-three-year-old translator. (Photo by Colin Kinniburgh)

I first passed the protest camp on Christmas Eve, as the sun was setting and most of the country was preparing to sit down for the holiday dinner. So were twenty-odd local gilets jaunes. This dedicated group of protesters had spent over a month camped out at Jeanne Rose, a large roundabout on the outskirts of the former industrial town of Le Creusot, about four hours’ drive southeast of Paris. Their ranks had thinned since November 17, when 150 or so protesters first rallied to the Jeanne Rose roundabout, out of some quarter-million across the country. But those who stuck around had reason to be optimistic. Already, they had won a series of concessions—including the suspension of the fuel tax hike that sparked the movement—from a government that had spent its first year and a half steamrolling reform after reform past all opposition. Wearing their signature yellow vests, the local gilets jaunes toasted the Christmas holiday together with escargot—a regional specialty—donated by a sympathizer and grilled over the campfire.

It is this kind of camaraderie that has sustained the protesters through the damp cold of France’s winter months, and has given the yellow-vest movement a much greater staying power than expected. In mid-January, a few weeks after I first visited, a series of raids cleared most of the small-town protest camps. But some groups of gilets jaunes have managed to hang on. As of early March, a cabin at the edge of the Jeanne Rose roundabout still welcomes passersby “Chez Manu et Brigitte,” bonfire roaring; across the country, mass marches and rallies remain a Saturday routine, with protesters numbering in the tens of thousands every weekend.

Meanwhile, police repression of the gilets jaunes has if anything grown fiercer. Since the movement started, hundreds of protesters and bystanders have been gravely injured by flash-balls and other police weapons, including one who was killed, at least seventeen who have lost an eye, five who have lost their hands, and dozens more who have been permanently disabled.

The yellow-vested protesters have achieved a phenomenal amount of attention, impact, and support over a relatively short amount of time. At the height of their popularity, in November and December, the gilets jaunes were favored by upwards of 70 percent of those polled. The decline in popular support since then (to around 50 percent) can partly be attributed to troubling instances of violence by a subset of participants, not just against property and police but against journalists and each other. Anti-Semitic incidents on the margins of the protests, though limited in number, have drawn national attention to the far-right, conspiracist creep of segments of the movement. The harassment of philosopher Alain Finkielkraut by gilets jaunes in Paris in mid-February—amid a rash of similar incidents in and around the capital, including the defacement of portraits of Simone Weil with swastikas—marked an especially low point.

The movement’s explosive trajectory and lack of clearly defined leadership mean that the gilets jaunes continue to defy easy characterization. But their lasting contribution has been a national reckoning over Macron’s pro-business agenda, which several previous rounds of strikes and protests failed to provoke. A broad swath of people who felt they had no say in politics—people who had never been to a protest or been part of a union, who had lost trust in elected officials and their parties, who felt nothing but contempt from the elites holding power over their lives—have experienced the thrill of collective power.

Whatever becomes of the gilets jaunes, their uprising has achieved at least one crucial thing. It has jolted the idea—still stubborn among policy elites—that climate change and inequality can somehow be confronted separately. It has demanded an urgent reconciliation, that is, between two of the defining challenges of our time.

By way of a stern warning, the gilets jaunes have dragged the climate debate just one step further away from incremental, market-based half-measures and toward an egalitarian alternative. Climate politics, they remind us, must spell equality, not austerity. Or else.

For years, France has positioned itself as a global leader in combating climate change. It was in Paris, of course, that 195 countries in 2015 signed a landmark agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and keep global warming below 2°C; it was in Paris, too, that Emmanuel Macron, in the first weeks of his presidency, vowed to “make our planet great again” in response to Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw from the agreement. Macron had already raised international hopes by naming a widely respected longtime activist, Nicolas Hulot, as environmental minister. In July 2017, Hulot released a climate plan designed to lead a just transition toward a low-carbon economy, ending French fossil fuel extraction and reducing unequal access to energy along the way.

But Macron’s green halo quickly dimmed. Even as the climate plan was unveiled, his government made clear that it had other priorities. It pushed ahead a slew of tax cuts and other market-friendly reforms (notably to labor law, education, and the national rail system) whose guiding principle was to make France more competitive. In keeping with his determination to transform Paris into the financial capital of post-Brexit Europe, Macron scaled back France’s financial transactions tax (which he had promised to strengthen) and abolished the “solidarity tax on wealth” (in French, ISF for short). In the process, he surrendered billions of Euros of revenue earmarked for social and climate policy, and cemented his reputation as “president of the rich.” The repeal of the wealth tax, which applied only to France’s richest 5 percent, has since become a central grievance of the gilets jaunes.

Meanwhile, the government’s professed ambitions on climate were slipping. Hulot lamented that carbon emissions were going back up and pleaded for a stronger financial transactions tax. His frustration culminated in a bombshell radio interview last August, when he announced live, without warning, that he could “no longer lie to himself” and would be resigning as minister.

All of this left Macron on thin ice when it came time, last fall, to defend a fresh round of fuel tax hikes announced for 2019. The specific policy in question is, in fact, a carbon tax, which since 2014 has made up an increasing share of France’s notoriously high gas taxes. Macron accelerated these increases, and on January 1, 2019, the tax on diesel—which powers most French drivers’ cars, especially outside of big cities—was set to jump by another 11 percent.

The government’s stated purpose in raising the carbon tax was twofold: to encourage people to drive less (or, better yet, switch out their old, polluting cars for more efficient ones) and to raise revenue for green investment. It was also a way of backtracking on a three-decades-long European push toward diesel cars, based on the premise that they polluted less—an error whose full implications are finally catching up to the governments responsible, not least France’s.

In this respect, Macron was perfectly open. “They told us for decades that we had to buy diesel and now it’s the opposite,” he said in early November. But, he continued, if the French public was taking his proposed solution badly, it was understandable—he simply hadn’t explained himself enough.

On the contrary, an increasing share of the public understood the problem all too well. Their government had made a huge mistake, partly under pressure from corporate lobbies. And yet again, it was trying to weasel its way out by passing the bulk of the costs down—not to the auto companies, not to the biggest polluters, but to the people reduced to counting every cent when they went to fill up the tank. In the name of the planet, Macron was demanding that the working class sacrifice while the rich were getting tax cuts, public services were being eroded, and green investment was nowhere to be seen. For several gilets jaunes I spoke to, and many more interviewed by other outlets, this was the last straw.

Yves Clarisse, 54, (right), worked most of his life in factories. For the past eight years, he has devoted himself to looking after his father suffering from Alzheimer’s. (Photo by Colin Kinniburgh)


About fifteen minutes’ drive southeast from the Jeanne Rose roundabout is the exit for Sanvignes-les-Mines (population 4,500), where my grandfather lives. This is “peri-urban” France: neither urban nor entirely rural, nor close enough to a big city to constitute a suburb, it’s the sort of in-between zone that now constitutes much of the French landscape. Long devoid of protest movements, such areas have become ground zero for the gilets jaunes. And it’s no coincidence: they’re the kind of places that are almost impossible to get around without a car.

Sure enough, when I visited the area in late December, I was greeted by a clownish puppet of Macron and a barrier of stacked tires, fencing off the protest camp of the gilets jaunes du Magny. Inside was a firepit and a wooden cabin, big enough to hold a dozen people. The site wasn’t chosen at random: the road it overlooks, known as the Route Centre-Europe Atlantique (RCEA), is a major artery for trucks crossing from France’s Atlantic ports into central Europe, and the on-ramp provides an easy vantage point from which to block it.

“We don’t exactly do blockades . . . let’s call it ‘filtering,’” says Yves Clarisse, who has been a fixture of the local yellow-vest protests since November 17. “We tend to slow the trucks down, because by doing so, even if it’s only for a half-hour, an hour, an hour and a half . . . it has an impact on the economy, so the government is forced to take notice.” Clarisse, fifty-four, lives in social housing in neighboring Montceau-les-Mines (population 19,000), and spent most of his career working in factories. For the last eight years, he has devoted himself to looking after his ninety-year-old father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s.

Unlike many gilets jaunes, who express disdain for all established parties, Clarisse is an avowed supporter of La France Insoumise, the left-populist formation led by veteran leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Asked why the fuel tax hike had triggered a mass movement when so many other unpopular reforms hadn’t, he said it was about freedom. But for Clarisse, the kind of freedoms allowed by owning a car could just as well be provided by free public transit. “If we moved toward free transit, it would allow a ton of people to get out of the house—whether it’s the elderly, people living alone, people who are out of work—and to express themselves more in life,” he says.

If anything, it is this desire—for a greater say in the decisions affecting their everyday lives—that has animated the gilets jaunes. The demand for a “citizens’ referendum” (RIC, for référendum d’initiative citoyenne) has become one of the movement’s signatures, and a rare point of unity. At the Jeanne Rose camp outside of Le Creusot, you could see it from the highway: the sole message greeting passing drivers, from a bright yellow banner, were the three letters “RIC.”

This demand is emblematic of the way the gilets jaunes’ positions scramble typical understanding of the divisions between left and right. Étienne Chouard, the figure most credited with popularizing the “RIC” among the gilets jaunes, styles himself as an anarchist, but his conspiracist bent has found him allies among hardened anti-Semites and other veterans of the far right. Prominent gilets jaunes friendly to Chouard, such as Eric Drouet and especially Maxime “Fly Rider” Nicolle, have spread their own share of vicious conspiracy theories—notably one that equates France’s adoption of the December 2018 Marrakesh Pact on migration with “selling” France to the United Nations. Hatred of the European Union and other international institutions courses through yellow-vest social media channels; among some gilets jaunes, the call for participatory democracy itself reflects this distrust of “big government,” especially as it extends beyond the borders of the nation-state.

But for the gilets jaunes I spoke to, and in the movement’s most widely shared collective statements, the broader demand for democracy was inextricable from social—and, by extension, climate—justice. A list of forty-two demands issued in late November, compiled through an online poll in which 30,000 people were said to have participated, included a halt to closures of local rail lines, post offices, and schools; a major retrofitting program to insulate homes; the renationalization of electric and gas utilities; a ban on the privatization of other public infrastructure; an end to austerity; and the fair treatment of asylum seekers, among a host of other measures aimed at reducing precarity and increasing equality. In January, an “assembly of assemblies” comprising 100 gilet jaune delegations from across the country concluded in a joint statement stressing many of the same themes.

Running through these demands is a call for a renewal of the public sphere—and, between the lines, an acknowledgement that in the twenty-first century, there can be no meaningful public sphere without collective, and transformative, solutions to climate change. Far from being anti-environmental, the gilets jaunes have exposed the greenwashing of Macron’s deeply regressive economic and social agenda. Clarisse pointed out that, of the additional €4 billion in revenue that the fuel tax hike—since scrapped—was projected to raise in 2019, only 19 percent would have been channeled directly toward the green transition, with the rest going back into the government’s general budget. Meanwhile, France’s biggest corporations are reaping tens of billions of euros’ worth of tax cuts under the “tax credit for competitivity and jobs,” or CICE.

Of course, the government’s main justification for raising the carbon tax—publicly at least—was not to raise revenue, but to discourage the use of fossil fuels. But on this point too, gilets jaunes and environmental economists alike are skeptical. Attempting to change people’s habits through taxes presumes that, if one product gets too expensive, they can just switch to another one. But many working-class households simply can’t afford to decarbonize their commutes.

“It’s well and good to tell people who are making €1000 a month to change their car, but they can’t,” says Elsa (last name withheld), a thirty-three-year-old translator and a fellow regular at the Magny camp along with Clarisse. She, like so many gilets jaunes, sees Macron’s government as imposing a false binary between people’s livelihoods and saving the planet.

Macron’s government, for its part, claims that it has offered French drivers alternatives, by granting low-income households up to €5000 in incentives to upgrade to a less polluting car (one of a few of the measures the government proposed in early November in an attempt to calm mounting anger over the fuel tax). But for many gilets jaunes, this offering was either too little, too late, or nowhere near enough. (Even a €5000 bonus, for one thing, falls far short of the cost of switching to a hybrid or electric car.) The explosion of the yellow-vest movement on November 17 exposed a deeper unease, which a series of concessions since—including a government-funded bonus for low-wage workers—have similarly failed to allay.

The continuous protests have put the president in an uneasy position of his own. It’s not just that his government’s legitimacy has taken a severe blow, though it has. (A February poll showed his approval rating steadily recovering from its record low at the height of the yellow-vest movement—when he tied his predecessor François Hollande for least popular president of the Fifth Republic—but it remained at 34 percent, several points below Trump’s.) Macron’s concessions to the protesters have also put his government at odds with EU budget rules, which mandate a maximum deficit-to-GDP ratio of 3 percent.

Macron’s finance minister Bruno Le Maire was quick to clarify that the €10 billion in concessions (including the energy subsidies and wage bonus) would be made up by spending cuts elsewhere. Macron himself has insisted that restoring the wealth tax (ISF), a central demand of the gilet jaunes, is off the table. And while the government is keen to showcase a new tax on tech giants—Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, or GAFA for short—Le Maire stressed in a mid-January interview that the government’s priority remains to downsize the public sector in a bid to attract foreign investment. As for the yellow-vest movement and “great national debate” launched by Macron in response, Le Maire was sanguine. This is a “historic opportunity,” he said, for French citizens to make their voices heard—as long as they stick to the right questions. Notably: “which spending to cut in order to cut taxes?”

Of course, this austerity mindset is not only a French problem—far from it—and nor is Macron its chief architect. But the audacity of a government that professes to be a global leader on the environment, while in practice catering above all to transnational capital, has brought into stark relief the true stakes of the climate fight. The French government’s approach is symptomatic of the attitude that treats climate change as a market error—one which can be corrected with a tax here, an incentive there, targeted primarily at individual consumers—when climate science increasingly tells us that confronting climate change means reorienting our entire economies, and fast.

So far, the gilets jaunes have been far more effective in underlining the flaws of neoliberal climate policy than in proposing alternatives. But other movements are filling in the gaps. Since September, near-monthly climate marches in France and neighboring countries have brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets to demand meaningful action on climate change, including about 200 in Montceau-les-Mines in December. Even those who weren’t wearing yellow vests overwhelmingly shared the sense that their struggles were one and the same. Borrowing a phrase from Nicolas Hulot, they chanted, “Fin du monde, fins de mois / Mêmes coupables, même combat” (“End of the world, end of the month / same culprits, same fight”). Poll after poll shows climate change to be a top concern for growing numbers of French voters, as for many of their counterparts around the world. Nicolas Hulot remains by far the most popular political figure in France, with a 75 percent approval rating. (He is practically the only one to clear the 50 percent mark.) A petition mounted by four environmental groups in mid-December, threatening legal action against the French government if it did not take immediate, concrete measures to honor its climate commitments, quickly became the most successful in French history. With 2.1 million signatures as of this writing, it outpaces the petition credited with kickstarting the yellow-vest movement by almost a million.

Still, it took the gilets jaunes to send out the kind of SOS signal that the rest of the world was willing to hear. They have set the tone for the rest of Macron’s first term, and may yet augur a new era in French politics, if not European politics writ large.

In the meantime, the trucks rumble on along the RCEA. In a week, some 300 of them go back and forth just from one new Lidl warehouse outside of Le Creusot. This outpost of the German-based discount supermarket mega-chain is now the largest in France, having replaced a smaller one just a few miles down the road—directly across from the now evacuated yellow-vest outpost at le Magny. This hasn’t escaped the attention of the local gilets jaunes, who blockaded the warehouse on two separate occasions in late November. (A group of about 200 gilets jaunes did the same at a Lidl distribution center in small-town Brittany in early December.) Perhaps the movement’s most unsung strength is its knack for pinpointing such key nodes of an evolving world economy, whose carbon footprint continues to balloon while those least responsible shoulder the blame. Taxing everyday consumption of fossil fuels may be a necessary step toward abandoning them for good, but it will only succeed if those who profit most, pay most, and the benefits to everyone else are immediate and tangible.

Proposals toward that end are not lacking. Among them is the European version of the Green New Deal championed by the DiEM25/European Spring movement, led internationally by economist Yanis Varoufakis and represented in France by the new party Génération.s. This group insists that problems as fundamental as inequality and climate change cannot be solved at the national level alone. Even a French government hell-bent on taxing the rich would be hard pressed to do so singlehandedly, at least at the levels needed to finance a rapid, low-carbon overhaul of the economy, without support from European institutions. So their answer is not less Europe, but more—a more democratic, more egalitarian continental system that could oversee a massive green transition. The European Spring manifesto calls for a €500 billion/year, continent-wide green investment program; a job guarantee and a “universal citizen dividend” that would pave the way for a continental basic income; renegotiation of Europe’s energy and agricultural policies to foster renewables and agroecology; a financial transactions tax and a crackdown on tax havens; a strengthened right to housing; greater rights for migrants and refugees; and so on.

This program, like the Green New Deal in the United States, could easily be accused of being a socialist grab-bag. But the vital insight it shares with its U.S. counterpart—and what brings it coherence as a climate policy—is its emphasis on the massive investment, across a huge variety of different sectors, needed to flip the switch toward a low-carbon economy.

In France, a similar platform is also being championed by Place publique, a new group seeking to form a united front of ecological, democratic-left parties for the European elections and beyond. Their “points of unity” include the principle that the future of life on earth cannot be sacrificed to spending limits like the EU’s 3 percent deficit rule. Adding to this list is the Manifesto for the Democratization of Europe, launched by Thomas Piketty and some 120 other European intellectuals in December, and now counting over 100,000 signatures.

These new initiatives build on the long-running demands of tax justice groups like Attac, which was born out of the alter-globalization movement of the late 1990s and today leads a coalition calling for 1 million climate jobs in France alone. Echoes of a Green New Deal can also be found in the platform of La France Insoumise, albeit couched in more Euro-skeptic terms. Mélenchon’s party favors the language of green economic planning, and it presents the ecological transition as the task for an “independent” France.

For all the discord over Europe, strategy, and style—not to mention accumulated grudges between party leaders—there are important common threads binding all of these proposals, as well as the demands of the gilets jaunes. At their core is the question of who pays, and who gets paid, to lead the ecological transition. There is consensus among the broad left that corporate subsidies such as France’s CICE tax breaks must be directly reinvested in the green economy. But which green economy? Renewable energy, public transit, and agroecology are no doubt central to the equation. But so is an entire other sphere of un- and undercompensated care and service work—what Marxist-feminists like Nancy Fraser have called the labor of “social reproduction.” Building on the momentum of the gilets jaunes, the demands of these workers have also been rising to the surface in France. There are the stylos rouges (red pens), the teachers calling for salary hikes and an end to job cuts. There are the gilets roses (pink vests), the childcare workers mobilizing against planned reforms to unemployment insurance that especially threaten short-term contract workers like them.

And, among the gilets jaunes themselves, there are not only professional healthcare aides like Ingrid Levavasseur, who announced in January that she would head up a list of yellow-vest candidates for the European elections, but many like Yves Clarisse who devote their lives to taking care of their loved ones, for little to no compensation. (Clarisse is entitled to €500 a month in state support for looking after his father—about a third of the minimum wage—but even combined with his father’s pension, he told a local reporter, it’s barely enough to get them through the month.)

The effort to revalue care work in this mold is central to why Green New Deal advocates on both sides of the Atlantic have put a universal basic income, a job guarantee, or some combination of the two at the center of their agenda. As scholars like Alyssa Battistoni have long stressed, policies privileging care, education, and other services are natural building blocks of an egalitarian, low-carbon economy. If done right, such policies would upturn the vicious cycle of race-to-the-bottom practiced by multinational corporations like Lidl, which treat employees like disposable goods in the pursuit of selling ever more, well, disposable goods—imported from global South sweatshops at great carbon cost—to customers who are sorely in need of the discounts.

Reading through the list of demands issued by the gilets jaunes in late November, it’s striking how much of this same agenda emerges. But so far, the connections between their movement and programs like the Green New Deal or the European Spring remain mostly between the lines. The “convergence of struggles” long heralded by French leftists, and flickering in these overlapping lists of demands, remains elusive.

What the gilets jaunes have made clear in the interim is that to gain a foothold in France, let alone in Europe, a Green New Deal will need to harness some of the rage that animated the roundabouts this past winter. It will be an uphill battle to rally even a plurality of the French public to the idea that the democratic left, rather than the National Front, represents the most credible challenge to Macron’s three-decades-late reprise of “there is no alternative.” The European elections this May will be the first major test of which way the yellow-vest revolt ultimately points: toward a democratic, egalitarian alternative, anchored around an expansive vision of climate justice, or toward a hardening, zero-sum battle between the neoliberal center and the far right.

For now, the crackle of the bonfires that kept the protesters warm through the winter has largely given way again to a quieter smoldering of discontent. Still, at roundabouts like Jeanne Rose, a dedicated core of protesters are searching for next steps, while across the roundabout, a police car keeps close watch.

Colin Kinniburgh is a Paris-based journalist and an editor-at-large at Dissent.

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