Why are French people protesting so massively? Is it only for the fuel tax or there is more behind it?
There is much more to it than the fuel tax. To understand a bit better, we can ask a different question: Why has a fuel tax started such fury in large parts of the French population?
Successive French governments for the last 30 years have relied on promises of growth from an industrial model that was already dead. They avoid making the required structural changes and aimed at short-term results, with catastrophic consequences. The relocation of factories to Asia propelled China and unemployment to new heights. The failure to rethink suburbs in metropolitan areas excluded lots of people from the growth that was mostly concentrated in city centre. Governments kept discussing a “Marshall plan for the suburbs” but never even started to act on it.
The consequence is that people who didn’t get into high-paying jobs (mostly services or management) were excluded from the city centers, especially if they had families to support. The best example is Paris. Families have been gradually removed from Paris to the extent that many primary schools are now closing [1 ]. Most families have been pushed back to suburbs or nearby countryside. Meanwhile, the public infrastructure that was the backbone of this project (e.g. the French train network) degraded quickly following the disengagement of the state. Still, most people in these areas are required to commute everyday by car to their workplace — if they even have a job at all, making fuel a very important expense in their budget.
The fuel tax is an attack directed to people who lives outside the city centers. Most of the “yellow vests” movement started as a “peripheral” movement located on roundabouts in the suburbs [2 ], which says a lot about the urban/suburb/rural divide in France. This is absolutely NOT a new topic and has been clearly identified for decades already. Still, no politician has ever acted on it.
Macron, despite holding very little political power and not even having a party, apparently has a very high opinion of himself. He thinks he can solve problems by making decisions alone. While continuing to increase wealth concentration mechanisms (decreasing wealth tax, etc), he has systematically undercut the traditional “partners” in the negotiations — especially unions.
Unions are not particularly popular among French workers. Still, they usually do a pretty good job at mitigating the effects of poor political decisions. They have been repeatedly accused of breaking strikes in favour of the government - often with reason. One of the jobs of the union is to “limit breakage” (limiter la casse) by directing demonstrators’ energy towards negotiating results, not violent acts. This means that unions have often been allies of the government in the sense that they played things down to prevent critical social movements from turning into riots.
Bypassing unions was a risky (stupid?) move for Macron. He now ends up with a social movement that has lots of anger and no clear leadership — no representatives with whom to bargain. Macron wanted to reassert the presidential function, now he ends up being the direct and unique target of lots of hate from all sides — “yellow vests”, public servants, college students, etc. He has managed to personify the broken project of France as an elite country that can work without its people. He will now collect the anger and we should see what he will make of it. His interior minister just resigned a few weeks ago [3 ], anticipating the current situation.
There will be many similarities with Trump’s supporters or UK Brexiters to underline, but that will be another answer.
What we are witnessing is the consequence of decades of irresponsible decisions that have excluded a huge part of the population out of France’s political project. The territory was never reorganised to follow the country’s economical transformations. People outside the urban hubs were left to rely on jobs and cars that everybody knew will become increasingly expensive and obsolete.
It should be no surprise that a fuel tax is the catalyst of such big discontent, as what we are witnessing looks like the fall of a model of society based on fossil fuels. Many experts have been urging urban, energy, and territorial reforms for decades already, but politicians have preferred to groom their dreams of digital “unicorns”. Now it is payback time.
This is not the end, barely a continuation that signals something much bigger that is happening and will keep unfolding in France and in Europe.
This text was originally published in quora.