What French President Emmanuel Macron did wrong and why 'yellow vest' protesters were right to be angry

The protests were sparked by a “green” tax aimed at tackling climate change – but it unfairly targeted the poor

Belinda Ng |

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The ongoing “yellow vest” protests in France are among the biggest in the country’s history.

The “yellow vest” protests that have been occurring in various cities across France since November 17 this year have left a trail of destruction and violence in their wake. This grassroots mass movement, organised via social media, is one of the biggest in France’s recent history.

The protests were triggered by French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to raise taxes on diesel in a bid to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles.

Although Macron has now scrapped the tax because of the backlash, the events in France highlight the challenges of government efforts to curb carbon emissions and combat climate change. The biggest issue with “green” taxation is that the working class are disproportionately affected, especially in the case of France. The bright yellow vests worn by protesters – which all truck drivers in France are required to wear – are a visual symbol of this. But it isn’t just truck drivers who are the hardest hit. There are also people living in rural areas who need to commute to work every day.

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Gas already costs US$7.06 per gallon, and when taxation is implemented, fuel prices will rise by 30 cents per gallon and continue to rise over the next few years, according to the French government.

For those who can afford to pay these prices, the tax will not serve its purpose as a deterrent. If we exclude the ultra-poor who cannot afford vehicles, then it is going to be the working class that will bear the brunt of the tax in their daily lives. When green taxation becomes entangled in issues of income inequality, the bigger question of accountability is raised. Whilst everyone should be held accountable for driving polluting vehicles, the fact of the matter is that the richer demographic can get away with it, whilst the poorer ones cannot.

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There is no doubt that money can be very persuasive in changing behaviour, which is why taxes such as the carbon tax have long been considered in the debate around fighting climate change. But the problem in the case of France is lack of alternatives people can turn to when diesel becomes unaffordable. Had there have been a government-subsidised cheaper and greener fuel that people could turn to, then perhaps the protests would not have escalated as much.

Governments should stop thinking about using tax as a deterrent, and instead use it to incentivise people to use greener fuels and green technology instead. This would be a gentler approach to initiate the same shift away from fossil fuels and polluting industries.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge