Originally planned as a demonstration against fuel tax hikes, the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) revolts have sparked national and global debates. Some view the demonstrations as part of a rising anti-climate movement, while others draw parallels between the protests and demands for more climate action.
The movement, thus named because of the yellow safety jackets required by French law to be carried by all car owners, began in November 2018 in Paris as a demonstration against French President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to increase fuel taxes, which Macron claimed was necessary to fight climate change. The weekly demonstrations, which have been occasionally violent, have since grown and spread to other French cities and beyond France, and the movement’s objectives have expanded to include other social and economic issues, most notably the rising costs of living. Eventually, the French government decided in early December to suspend the fuel tax hike from the 2019 budget.
Many of the protesters are reported to come from the working and middle classes as well as rural, car-dependent communities. As such, several observers have attempted to link the Yellow Vests to right-wing sentiments, and to jump to the conclusion that, like many right-wing populists, the protesters are part of a global ‘anti-climate’ backlash. Indeed, several right-wing populists across Europe have capitalised on the movement. In France, National Rally leader Marine Le Pen has called for their support for her party’s campaign for the May 2019 European Parliament elections. Italy’s Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement, has also openly expressed support for the Yellow Vests. Outside of Europe, U.S. President Donald Trump took the opportunity to use the movement to justify his dissent over climate policies, tweeting in early December 2018 how the protests were proof that “the Paris Agreement is fatally flawed”, and questioning the effectiveness of the Accord after a weekend of violent protests in March this year.
The Yellow Vests are not fully against carbon taxation and other ‘pro-climate’ policies, as can be seen from a list of 42 demands published by the Yellow Vests on Scribd in November 2018. These demands include, among other things, investments into the hydrogen car industry rather than on the ‘less ecological’ electric cars, as well as an introduction of taxes on marine fuel oil and kerosene.
Several protesters in recent rallies have also stated how the goals of both the Yellow Vests and climate demonstrators are similar, that is, “for the government to take the population’s decisions into account”. Weekly climate demonstrations have seen a large number of participants donning yellow vests as a show of solidarity between both movements. One recurring theme that emerges from both movements is the call for better public transport services in rural areas, a call that resonates with the climate agenda of cutting emissions from transport, while at the same time empowering rural communities with improved access to services and revitalising the local economy.
Looking forward, the Yellow Vests demonstrations should be seen as an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and to improve the effectiveness of future climate policies. Macron’s fuel tax proposal may have come at a difficult time amidst growing public dissatisfaction over his social and economic policies, which created an atmosphere that was quickly hostile to any additional, ‘climate-friendly’ taxes. Climate policies and carbon taxation do not always have to be viewed as a burden to the public; instead, they could serve as incentives to encourage people to make the ecological transition. Some observers have cited the economically successful and increasingly popular British Columbian carbon tax in Canada, in which revenues are channelled back to the general public through tax breaks and credits for low-income households and businesses, as an example to which France could emulate to improve its own future climate policymaking.
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