France’s ‘Yellow Vest’ Protesters Aren’t Against Climate Action

Just because they oppose Emmanuel Macron’s proposed fuel-tax hike does not mean that the French activists will oppose any policy designed to fight climate change.

Protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers' block a gas station to protest against higher fuel prices, in Nantes, France, November 24, 2018. Inscription on the vest reads: "Macron, give us back our money."
Protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers' block a gas station to protest against higher fuel prices, in Nantes, France, November 24, 2018. Inscription on the vest reads: "Macron, give us back our money." (Stephane Mahe / Reuters)

PARIS—French President Emmanuel Macron swept into power last year promising to modernize his country and scale back its reliance on fossil fuels. Inspired by the Paris climate accord of 2015, his government quickly unveiled an ambitious policy aimed at reducing carbon emissions by 75 percent—in part by raising taxes on diesel and gasoline.

This week, Macron’s government suffered its biggest political and symbolic defeat yet, when it said it would scrap a proposed diesel fuel-tax hike from the 2019 budget after weeks of escalating protests. “Yellow vest” demonstrations began with disgruntlement over fuel taxes and have since spiraled into something far more nebulous and powerful, a rising groundswell of economic and class anxiety that the government is hard-pressed to placate. Fresh rallies are expected this weekend, and authorities are bracing for more violence by protesters intent on wreaking havoc in a country with a long tradition of volatile demonstrations.

The situation in France is unique and speaks to the challenges faced by Macron, a revolutionary upstart but something of a political naïf who has struggled to sell his reform agenda to a change-resistant country. What’s not unique are the political costs of climate-change legislation. In this, France now offers a cautionary tale, unfolding in real time.

From the outset, Macron’s environmental agenda was both practical and symbolic, a way to make France more ecological and to distinguish himself, not just in Europe but on the world stage. That was especially true after President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord. Last December, Macron held an international “One Planet” conference meant to press climate policy forward without Washington’s involvement. He also offered tens of millions of dollars in grants to 13 American climate scientists, luring them to France to conduct basic research in a program he dubbed “Make Our Planet Great Again.” He spoke of the environment when he addressed Congress in April, saying, “Let us face it: There is no Planet B.”

This week, President Trump couldn’t resist tweeting his delight after the French government rolled back the fuel-tax rise. “I am glad that my friend @EmmanuelMacron and the protestors in Paris have agreed with the conclusion I reached two years ago,” he wrote. “The Paris Agreement is fatally flawed because it raises the price of energy for responsible countries while whitewashing some of the worst polluters.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which has generally been in favor of Macron’s business-friendly policies, this week sided with the “yellow vests,” a movement that takes its name from the roadside safety vests that motorists are required to own, and bashed Macron’s carbon tax, saying it would cost too much.

But they may be seeing only what they want to see in the protests. The fact is, the yellow-vest demonstrations have never been against Macron’s climate-change policies in general; they have been against the fuel tax in particular, which they see as unfairly targeting lower-income households. “This is not the yellow vests against climate-change policies. It’s the yellow vests against the cost of living, the way politics are done, and how decision makers are doing policy,” says Pierre Cannet, the head of climate and energy at the French offices of the WWF, an environmental nonprofit organization. In other words, in a context of social unrest and economic instability, the Macron government didn’t sell its policy well enough to its citizens.

The policy wasn’t even a proper carbon tax: It was a plan to increase France’s version of the gas tax. Before the effort was suspended this week, France was set to increase the diesel tax by 6.5 Euro cents per liter and the gasoline tax by 3.9 cents per liter. (That’s a hike of 28 cents per gallon and 17 cents per gallon, respectively.) France had already increased its gas and diesel taxes by several cents this year, and the government paid little attention to explaining where these funds were going. That the shift came after years in which France, and Europe, had encouraged the use of diesel fuel as being better for the environment only served to infuriate voters further.

Median monthly take-home pay in France is €1,700, and the €80 it can cost to fill up your tank can sting—especially if you live in a rural area where you’re reliant on a car. The government’s messaging, if anything, worsened the situation: Macron, who is seen as imperious and out of touch, has suggested that people in car-dependent areas simply carpool.

The reaction in France offers a case study of the perils of efforts to combat climate change. Historically, economists have pushed for governments to use tax policy, the idea being that only a tax can “internalize” the costs of climate change: By charging polluters for every ton of heat-trapping gas they emit into the atmosphere, a carbon tax lets the market account for climate change by itself. “Many experts agree that taxing carbon to regulate emissions is the most economically efficient approach,” Resources for the Future, a nonprofit climate think tank based in Washington, says on its website.

But for all its technocratic elegance, taxing carbon has proved a hard political sell. France is not the only country that has struggled to turn climate enthusiasm into tax policy. Australia, Canada, and the United States have all hit similar problems.

Last year, Malcolm Turnbull, then the prime minister of Australia, unveiled a bill that aimed to reform his country’s energy system. The bill required some small cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions—nothing major, but enough to meet Australia’s promises under the Paris Agreement.

But some members of Turnbull’s party reject climate science—and that right-wing faction balked at the cuts. By August, he announced he would not put the bill up for a vote. A week later, he was out of office. The new prime minister says he does not plan to commit the emissions cuts to law. That wasn’t even the first time that Australia rejected a climate policy. In 2011, a Labor government adopted a carbon tax, and it took effect the following year, successfully cutting emissions but leading to higher energy costs. In 2014, a right-wing government repealed the tax, though prices have continued to climb.

Canada has also run into snags. In 2015, Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister after campaigning to establish a national carbon levy. That tax is scheduled to go into effect next year, though provinces are free to use a different policy if it will achieve similar emissions reductions.

But it’s unclear whether that effort will survive into 2020. Canada’s Conservative Party has dubbed the policy a “tax on everything” and promised to make it a central issue in next year’s elections. Doug Ford, the brother of the infamous late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, was elected premier of the province of Ontario partly thanks to his outspoken hatred for any climate policy. Last week, he blamed it for General Motors’ recent decision to close a major factory in the province. (This is unlikely: GM is also shuttering two factories in the United States, which does not have a carbon tax.)

Even in liberal areas of the United States, a carbon tax has proved a tough sell. Last month, voters in Washington State swept liberal Democrats to power en masse while rejecting a ballot initiative that would have established the country’s first carbon tax.

And though it didn’t quite work through the tax code, Democrats also failed to pass a national carbon-price bill in 2009, when they last controlled Congress and the White House. That measure was so unpopular that the Democrat Joe Manchin, then running for the Senate in West Virginia, appeared to shoot the bill in a campaign ad.

Not every carbon tax has met the same fate. According to the World Bank, 46 countries charge some kind of carbon price, even if that policy applies to only one sector of their economy. Sweden and the United Kingdom have successfully run carbon taxes for years. Sweden got lucky in some ways: It has taxed all forms of energy since the 1950s, and adjusted that levy to account for carbon in 1991, well before climate change became a high-profile issue across the West. Its emissions declined by 26 percent in the years that followed.

Britain may offer more relevant lessons. It only imposed a carbon tax on electricity production in 2013, helping drive emissions lower. But climate policy has a long and cross-party history in the U.K.: In 2008, its parliament was almost unanimous in adopting an aggressive climate bill, and Margaret Thatcher demanded a global climate policy in 1989 while prime minister. In fact, Thatcher may have helped make British climate policy possible: Her war on the country’s socialized coal industry prevented conservatives from forming any nostalgic alliance with coal power in the way right-wing parties have across the rest of the Anglosphere.

That kind of cross-party commitment may be the only way to implement an enduring climate policy. California, for instance, is the only U.S. state with a muscular climate policy. Yet its first policies came in 2006 at the hand of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican. Subsequent Democratic governments have built on that initial foundation.

Environmental groups have rushed to point out that they see the situation in France as a reaction to Macron—and not to climate tax policy. “The wrong message to take away from the situation in France would be that carbon or fuel taxes are a bad idea,” Helen Mountford, the vice president of climate and economics at the World Resources Institute, said via email. “They are a very effective and efficient policy instrument, and if implemented well can deliver multiple economic, social, and health benefits.”

Instead, Mountford added, the protests point to the importance of “ensuring that government policies are developed in a way that instills public confidence, are equitable, and improve people’s lives.”

That may be the biggest takeaway from the yellow-vest moment in France: Politicians eager to implement farsighted policy changes need to explain them well and sell them well to citizens. Polls have shown that French people are very concerned about the environment, and would welcome policies that would reduce their energy consumption—and their utilities bills.

Before the yellow-vest protests broke out last month, the biggest critique of Macron’s environmental policies had actually come from inside his government. In August, Macron’s popular environmental minister, Nicolas Hulot, abruptly resigned during a radio interview, saying he was disappointed that the government hadn’t gone far enough in its environmental policies. A longtime environmental activist in France with a dedicated following, Hulot complained about an “accumulation of disappointments” in Macron’s cabinet.

“The French are backing a green agenda; they’re just asking for this agenda to be inclusive,” Cannet, of the WWF, says. Macron’s “whole narrative is something that can be improved,” he says. “It’s not a break on the energy transition; it’s how you make it a just transition.”

Rachel Donadio reported from Paris, and Robinson Meyer reported from Washington, D.C.