France’s Yellow Vest Protests and What They Tell us About our Future With Climate Change

By Emma Gerber

             The Yellow Vest Protests in France began on November 17th of 2018. While the number of protesters are declining and the protests have fallen out of many headlines, the protests still remain a strong force and a fierce source of contention in France.

          The protests originally started in response to the French president Emmanuel Macron’s new Green Tax on Fuel that was set to go into effect on January 1, 2019. The proposed tax would have increased the tax on diesel in France by 6.5 euro cents per liter, hopefully encouraging the French public to use less diesel, which would ultimately aide the efforts to combat climate change and related issues. However, this new Green tax strongly angered long commuters in France, many of who were already frustrated by the fact that they felt their means were already stretched thin and that their standard of living was already declining. These grumblings were supported by the fact that Macron notably enacted some reforms early in his presidency to loosen labor laws and slash France’s famous wealth tax, which has made him seem to some as the “president of the rich”.

          The protestors are known as the Gilet jaunes” or “yellow vests” because of the yellow vests they wear, which are the traditional safety vests motorists are  required to keep in their vehicle in France. While they were originally primarily protesting for the removal of the Green Tax, their demands have shifted to higher wages and less taxes after the green tax was suspended for six weeks by Macron back in early December.

          While the majority of protesters are peaceful, there has been a great deal of media attention in France surrounding violet acts carried out by ultraleft or ultraright anarchists known as casseurs. Most of the violence is directed towards the destruction of cities, (namely Paris). The destruction is significant, and some sources are estimating the cost of the damage to be somewhere around 3.4 million euros. Aside from destruction of the city, some of the violence has been directed towards prominent French lawmakers, who have mostly stayed out of the way of the violence. Police forces have been active in trying to control the protests, which has sparked some controversy itself.

          So how do these protests relate to climate change? Well, circling back to the original fuel tax increase that started this whole ordeal, the green tax was enacted in an attempt to discourage the use of fuel and therefore cut carbon emissions in France. This is part of Macron’s goal to cut carbon emissions in France by 40 percent before 2030, following up on a promise he made early in his career about curbing the effects of climate change.

          These measures make a lot of sense, considering that it is undeniable at this point that cutting carbon emissions is essential for our planet  and ultimately our continued existence as a in this fashion on earth. Scientists are saying that we can curb climate change, but we need to take immediate and severe action. According to an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report titled IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C  in 2018, it is crucial that climate change not be allowed to reach 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, which is a marker for when we will start to see some severe and irreversible effects. The same report offers examples of actions that must be taken to curb climate change, including ”shifting to low- or zero-emission power generation, such as renewables; changing food systems, such as diet changes away from land-intensive animal products; electrifying transport and developing ‘green infrastructure’, such as building green roofs, or improving energy efficiency by smart urban planning, which will change the layout of many cities,”

          In many ways, Macron was trying to do his part a world leader in addressing the major problems of climate change. However, Macron’s tax did not pan out in the potentially idealist way that he expected it to. Instead of calmly encouraging people to reduce gas usage because of the no longer economically practical nature of using large amounts of gas, the fuel tax increase only incited great amounts of anger from citizens who might not be able to reduce their gas usage and therefore are confronted with a rising price for their already difficult everyday life.

          From many perspectives, the issue surrounding the protests  seems almost like some sort of the paradox, with two forces that should not necessarily be fundamentally opposed but have found themselves on opposite sides of an argument. After all, the reduction of climate change and a good standard of living are not mutually exclusive. But because this green tax sets up a very all or nothing conflict between those who want it passed for the sake of the climate and those who want it discarded for the sake of their standard of living.           This issue ultimately shows the interesting relationship most countries have with climate change, where we clearly recognize a problem and want to help but don’t want to change any aspects of our everyday life or sacrifice anything in regards to our standards of living. Instead, most people make minor changes that are not inconvenient, and only make major changes when they are required to do so by government action, such as the green tax in France. But the green tax in France also shows that there are definite limits to how much we are willing to sacrifice for climate change, which brings up some interesting questions. How far is the world willing to go to curb climate change? And will it be enough? These questions are difficult to answer, and something that we must figure out as a worldwide society before it is too late. However one thing is certain, and that is if we do not make major changes and try to push past the boundaries we have regarding climate change, there may not be a standard of living left to defend.