20 November 2018

France’s fuel protests expose Macron’s failings


Clad in lurid hi-vis jackets, and furious at steep fuel price hikes by Emmanuel Macron’s government, around 280,000 gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protesters brought parts of France to a standstill on Saturday, with more than 2000 demonstrations blocking roads.

One person died, when a woman in the east of the country was taking her daughter to the doctors’ office and a gaggle of demonstrators surrounded and started hitting her car. Panicking, she accelerated and ran over a protester. Overall, 400 people were injured, three critically.

Protests have died down somewhat since the weekend, but continued on Monday with fuel depots blocked and skirmishes in the Calais area.

Despite many protesters’ bad behaviour, their anger is understandable. Starting in 2014, under Macron’s predecessor and erstwhile boss François Hollande, the French government has been ratcheting up fuel duty, saying that this will encourage motorists to adopt greener forms of transport.

Meanwhile a rise in global oil prices has pushed up the wholesale cost of fuel, causing diesel prices to increase by 25% and petrol prices by 15% over the past year. Seemingly unmoved, the Macron government has pencilled in further tax hikes – a 2.9 cent per litre increase in petrol duty and a whopping extra 6.5 cents per litre on diesel – to take effect in January.

The French government spent much of the 2000s encouraging drivers to shift to allegedly more environmentally friendly diesel cars – so much so that 70% of cars in France are now diesel. Then, in the 2010s, when diesel turned out to be a particularly noxious fuel after all, tax policy rapidly changed course – heedless of the millions of drivers who followed the incentives the first time, and lack the means to buy a new car.

While touting the “ecological transition” supposedly engendered by these tax increases, Macron said “I prefer taxing fuel to taxing labour”. That’s a false dichotomy if ever there was one. In swathes of the countryside – as well as small towns and suburbs far from the Parisian bubble – there simply isn’t the public transport to take people to work. Driving is their only option.

Meanwhile, the average French agricultural labourer can hardly afford to swap their old diesel Citroën for a Toyota Prius. Macron added that “people complaining about rising fuel prices are the same ones who complain about pollution and how their children suffer.” But they’re not the same people, by and large.

There are plenty of Parisians who complain incessantly about pollution (I’m one of them). However, in the rural and exurban areas from which the ‘yellow vest’ revolt emerged, vehicle pollution is not exactly at the top of the agenda. Amid this divide between an uncomprehending Parisian elite and left-behind rural workers, it is unsurprising that these protests sprang up without the support or affiliation of any political party.

France’s equivalent to the House of Commons, the National Assembly, is a rubber stamp for Macron’s agenda. His La République En Marche party controls 308 of the 577 seats there and the allied MoDem party another 42 – although, tellingly, with a huge abstention rate, just 15% of the electorate plumped for an En Marche candidate in the first round of June’s parliamentary elections.

Most of those MPs are political neophytes who owe their positions to Macron and lack the guts and acumen to contradict the self-proclaimed “Jupiterian” president. None of the other parties can really speak for the ‘yellow vests’.

The far-left France Insoumise (badly tainted by an alleged corruption scandal) and the Socialist Party (fading into irrelevance) have equivocated, struggling to square the circle of supporting inexpensive fuel and a green agenda at the same time.

Les Républicains – the conservatives – are in a similar bind: how can the party of law and order back the demands of rowdy and, at their worst, dangerous group of protesters? Admittedly, their deputy leader proposed giving 13 million people in rural areas a 100 euro fuel benefit – but that hardly fits in with their signature policy of acknowledging that something needs to be done about France’s bloated public debt.

Depressingly, the National Rally (formerly National Front) is probably the only party whose support for the ‘yellow vests’ coheres with its other policies. But it is significant that protest organisers asked any NR members in the demonstrations not to wear party logos: while the far-right party has experienced a long trajectory of increased support, it remains anathema to many in France.

While there is no strong opposition to capitalise on the protesters’ anger, the ‘yellow vests’ demonstrations came after a summer of discontent with Macron, bringing his poll ratings as low as 21%.

First there was the Benalla affair, a quintessentially French political scandal – as weird as it was murky. After the French media went full throttle at Macron for a week, they gave a collective shrug: it was a storm in a teapot, a trifle compared to the antics of his predecessors, and in any case, he was given a huge mandate.

But far away from the Haussmannian grandeur of the Parisian boulevards, many French people still wonder why on earth Macron’s bodyguard pretended to be a police officer and beat up a protester at a rally on the other side of Paris from the president. They’re also more than a little bemused as to why Macron’s office gave Benalla the gentlest of slaps on the wrist – if that – without informing judicial authorities.

Then there was the cabinet reshuffle omnishambles in October. The interior minister Gérard Collomb wanted to resign. Macron wouldn’t accept – and a brief Chuckle Brothers-style to-me-to-you ensued with the resignation letter. After Collomb did indeed resign, there was a fortnight of supposedly imminent reshuffles – a significantly more boring version of Waiting for Godot.

When Godot finally arrived, he took the form of new interior minister Christophe Castaner. All that needs to be known about him is his previous three job titles: Macron’s campaign spokesman, Macron’s government’s spokesman, head of Macron’s party.

The “Jupiterian” nonsense masks a lack of ideas. The fuel tax issue exemplifies this. Under François Mitterand, France was one of the first countries in the world to seriously respond to the threat of climate change – quickly establishing a thriving nuclear energy industry while shutting down fossil fuel-burning plants, and creating thousands of high-skilled, well-paying jobs in the process.

It has one of the most innovative automotive sectors in the world. Given the right incentives and tax breaks, the likes of Renault could create and produce millions of affordable mass-market electric cars to service the needs of rural France without harming the planet.

But instead of unleashing French enterprise – far from a contradiction in terms, as the Anglo-Saxon stereotype would have it – to find solutions, Macron contents himself with vapid slogans like “Make the Planet Great Again” or “Start-Up Nation”, and an extra 6.5 cents on a litre of diesel.

The French Jupiter remains popular abroad, and his particular rhetorical style of grandiloquent guff interspersed with Voltaire quotes still goes down well at home, in some quarters.

Nevertheless, the low approving ratings come down to the fact that he promised to bring about a new kind of presidency, a new kind of politics, a new kind of France, with his unprecedented combination of youthful vigour, technocratic expertise and monarchical grandeur.

In reality, Macron’s only big policy of any real substance or significance is cutting the deficit a bit. He’s not Jupiter – just George Osborne with a thesaurus.

Tom Wheeldon works for Radio France Internationale in Paris.