France’s Gas Tax Disaster

December 8, 2018

France has turned into a bubbling cauldron of unrest over the past month as the so-called yellow vest movement has put up roadblocks and taken to the streets to protest a gas tax. Last week’s protests turned violent and facing a crisis, the government of Emmanuel Macron announced on Tuesday it would put a six-month moratorium on the tax.

The tax was meant to combat climate change and reduce carbon pollution. While it likely would’ve done that, it would’ve done so on the backs of France’s rural low and middle class. The mass revolt against it doesn’t mean those groups oppose climate action. It means that Macron needs to include them in discussions about the best way to address climate change as part of a just transition, something the world at-large is grappling with as it aims to get a handle on carbon emissions.

More than 280,000 protesters donned yellow safety vests that motorists are required to keep in their cars and took to the streets across France last weekend. The protests have arisen organically through Facebook and other social media platforms, and span the ideological divide. Their focus has largely been on the unfairness of Macron’s proposed gas tax, which would’ve raised prices by €0.029 per liter ($0.12 a gallon) on unleaded gas and €0.065 per liter ($0.24 a gallon) on diesel. Rising oil prices have pushed fuel prices higher still now was among the worst times to propose such a tax.

The French government has spent years promoting diesel, and the tax would’ve left many already struggling to make ends meet with higher fuel bills on vehicles they’ve been encouraged to buy. The money it raised would also have been used to combat the national deficit, which has been made worse in part by the Macron government’s policies, like lifting portions of a wealth tax. In short, the gas tax was a technocratic fix without any real constituency and the benefits were poorly explained, leaving it open to criticism and protest. The yellow vests enjoy a broad base of support with a recent poll showing that 72 percent of the French public is sympathetic to the cause.

The fight against the tax is not a fight against climate policy, however. “We are not against the ecology, on the contrary,” Benoit Julou, a spokesperson for the yellow vest movement, said on a France 3 talk show last week. Rather it shows that any policies that only consider climate benefits and are made top-down are destined to fail.

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