Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The rapidly developing “Yellow Vest” movement took over streets and highways to oppose rising gas and diesel taxes. It might also be a proxy for frustrations about rising costs and falling living standards.
France may have a tradition of boisterous protest, but this weekend’s mass demonstrations against gas tax increases have still managed to take the country by surprise.
On Saturday and Sunday, at least 280,000 protesters took to the streets in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the country, burning cars, blockading highways and fuel depots, and engaging in battles with police and motorists as they demonstrated against planned rises in gas and diesel taxes. So far, over 400 people have been injured in the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement—so named because the protesters are wearing the high-viz vests that French drivers are obliged to carry in case of emergencies. On Saturday, one was even killed after being run over by a panicked driver. The movement shows no signs of letting up, however, with protests continuing Monday and more major protest days planned for later in the month.
It’s not just the protests’ fierceness and geographic spread that have taken the country by surprise—French media reported more than 2,000 separate rallies occurring across the country. Unusually, the Yellow Vests is a grassroots mass protest movement with no explicit wider political agenda or links to existing groups. Having organized themselves via social media since May (when the movement was sparked by an online petition), the Yellow Vests have arrived somewhat out of the blue.
There is also no clear media consensus as to what they are protesting beyond the cost of gas. To some observers, the protesters are primarily angry about what they see as President Emmanuel Macron’s apparent indifference toward tough conditions for working people. To others, the movement is evidence of a middle-class backlash. Meanwhile, it’s not automatically easy to say whether the protest cleaves more to the left or the right.
The core issue that the Yellow Vests have rallied around is clear enough, at least. Earlier this year, Macron announced tax increases on fuel, due to be introduced in January. If the plans go ahead, gas taxes will rise by €0.029 per liter ($0.12 a gallon) and taxes on diesel—a fuel once heavily promoted in France that is now being proactively phased out—will rise to €0.065 a liter ($0.24 a gallon). These taxes come on the heels of already steep rises in fuel costs over the past few years, leaving the government open to accusations that it is squeezing already stretched workers in a way that shows indifference to their living conditions.
The tax rises appear to fit within a pro-Green agenda espoused by Macron’s government, in a country where attitudes to road transit and carbon emissions are changing fast. Macron has already pledged to ban all gasoline-fueled cars by 2040, and it seems that local authorities are getting on board with the changes needed to meet that goal. This month, most of the Paris region pledged to start phasing out all but the newest diesel and gas-fueled vehicles.
A cross-party consensus seems to be developing on these issues, but in protesting the government’s planned tax rises, the Gilets Jaunes have avoided an explicitly anti-Green stance. They have pointed out that, while the rises are being presented partly as a form of carbon tax promoting a shift toward cleaner energy sources, only 20 percent of the tax actually goes toward supporting the country’s transition to cleaner energy. The fact that France’s fuel taxes are not the highest in Europe, and are actually lower than Germany’s, doesn’t change the widely felt impression that drivers are being squeezed by a government that is not entirely practicing what it preaches.
Given the scale of the protests and the speed at which the movement has grown, there’s still likely more powering the anger of the Gilets Jaunes than just the cost of fuel alone. The group doesn’t seem to be an obvious worker’s group. It has gained the support of both leftist presidential hopeful Jean-Luc Mélenchon and some representatives of the right-wing Republican Party, for example, but has not yet been endorsed by any of France’s labor unions, or by truck drivers. And while the protesters have grouped around a single issue, there seems a risk that the movement’s lack of explicit politics could place it at risk of being highjacked. Already people taking part in some protests have engaged in ugly racist and homophobic abuse against passers-by that, while still atypical of the demonstrations as a whole, suggest a whole cauldron of other tensions bubbling under the demonstrations’ surface.
Newspaper Le Monde may have come closest to the truth by tagging the phenomenon as a lower-middle-class protest movement, one for people who are mainly in work but feel let down by President Macron’s reforms. These are people “who earn too much to get any state aid or tax breaks, but too few of whom earn enough to live comfortably. All of them live in places where public services are thin on the ground and [as a result] they no longer quite see the benefit of paying taxes.” Fuel taxes are thus both a meaningful weight on this group’s daily expenses and a proxy for more general frustrations about rising costs and falling living standards.
This interpretation might still be too heavy a weight of meaning to place on a chain of anti-tax protests. It will be instructive to see what, if any, direction the Gilets Jaunes will take once the immediate issue they have assembled to fight fades from view.