The people of France are currently engaged in a major political battle with their government. But those of us on the outside watching the “Yellow Vests” bring their nation to a standstill are also learning a valuable lesson: how to make politicians bend to your will through relentless activism. Within just a few weeks of widespread and continuous protests, French President Emmanuel Macron has given in to several demands, postponing a planned fuel tax hike and offering both tax cuts and a minimum-wage increase.
Macron even issued a mea culpa in a televised address to the French people—an act that American politicians might find humiliating. “The anger is deeper. I feel it is justified in many ways,” he told them. “It is 40 years of malaise that is resurfacing … no doubt over the past year and a half we have not provided answers.”
Through weeks of mass direct action, the French have shown their government who is boss, and elected officials have been forced to accept and acquiesce—at least to an extent. It is a dynamic we can only dream of here in the U.S.
President Donald Trump has his own view of what the French protests mean. Trump has exploited the demonstrations to denounce the Paris Climate Accord agreed upon three years prior, packing three separate lies into a single tweet. First, he wrongly attributed the protests to the pact itself, writing, “The Paris Agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris. Protests and riots all over France.” In fact, the planned fuel tax increase was legislated well before the 2015 meeting in which the climate deal was signed. He added that “People do not want to pay large sums of money, much to third world countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment.” Those tax revenues would not benefit other nations at all. Trump ended his tweet with the most ridiculous of lies, saying that the protesters could be heard chanting, “We Want Trump!”—a statement not even worth dignifying with evidence to the contrary. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian shot back at Trump, asking him to mind his own country’s business.
The actual meaning of the protests doesn’t come down to the false premise of people versus the climate, as both The Washington Post and Trump are attempting to claim. Amnesty International’s secretary-general, Kumi Naidoo, penned a counterpoint in an essay for Time magazine, arguing that “It would be a mistake for the environmental movement to respond by playing [Trump’s] game and arguing that the moral imperative to tackle climate change must automatically override any hardship people might face in the short-term due to transition measures.” Instead, Naidoo suggested, “The French government must establish climate protection policies that reduce inequality, rather than deepen it. This includes policies such as subsidies to enable people to switch to clean energy sources rather than punishing them for failing to do so.”
In pushing a fuel tax hike, the French government has foisted the responsibility for the problems caused by carbon emissions onto ordinary people instead of targeting transnational corporations like Google and Amazon, which should pay higher taxes to aid the transition to clean energy. Major tech companies are currently exploiting the patchwork of tax codes across Europe, and Amazon even negotiated a settlement with the French government earlier this year for an undisclosed amount in back taxes.
France could also reinstate a tax on the rich. Last year, Macron backed out of the so-called Solidarity Tax on Wealth (known by its French acronym ISF) and has thus far ruled out the idea of returning to the days of a direct tax on the wealthiest individuals.
However the French government tackles climate change, it must do so by also tackling inequality—an idea that needs to take root all over the world in order to ensure the survival of our planet. In fact, climate solutions are perfectly suited to job creation and reducing poverty among those most vulnerable to the impact of global warming. This idea has been echoed in the so-called Climate Justice movement for years. Civil-society groups have persistently demanded equity on a global scale, insisting that wealthy governments pay for poorer ones to adapt to climate-friendly economies. It is the same basic idea behind the “Green New Deal” that environmental activists in the U.S. are pushing congressional members to back.
Indeed, the Yellow Vest protesters in France have articulated similar ideas. A list of 40 demands released by members of the movement includes numerous government policies to reduce income inequality by using taxes on the rich to subsidize the basic needs of the general population. It also includes ideas like nationalizing sectors of the energy industry and developing a hydrogen-vehicle industry. So far, it appears as though many in the leaderless movement are rejecting Macron’s gestures and refusing to back down until he makes more meaningful concessions.
Despite the success that members of France’s inspiring movement have had in making their anger felt, our analysis of the Yellow Vests must remain clear-eyed. For all its progressive aspects, this is not a purely leftist revolt against neoliberal capitalist hegemony. There are also reports of fascist and far-right elements among the protesters that have been linked to instances of property damage. Additionally, the movement has called for the deportation of immigrants whose asylum applications have been rejected, as well as funding increases for the police and armed forces—not exactly progressive ideas.
It should be noted that the people of France and the Yellow Vest protesters have made huge personal sacrifices to make their voices heard. So far, four people have been killed, more than a thousand have been arrested and scores have been injured. But, just as happens in the U.S., the retaliatory violence by police against the protesters is even more disturbing, as several photos and videos from the clashes show.
What works in France may not work elsewhere, of course. The French have their own form of government and a unique history of militant activism and revolution to draw from. They have far higher expectations of government and their leaders than we do. But by sticking to their guns for long enough and not caving in at the first sign of apparent victory, the protesters saw their power and seized it, making demands and digging in their heels. American actions can and should emulate the determined spirit of the Yellow Vests.
The French have taken on Macron—a charismatic, telegenic and purportedly liberal politician who has paid lip service to progressive values while attempting to grow the economy on the backs of ordinary people. We Americans have to contend with both Trump—an authoritarian narcissist and pathological liar with delusions of grandeur—and the Democratic Party, whose milquetoast leadership often takes greater pride in civility over progress.
There are already militant actions occurring piecemeal around the U.S. The youth-led movements demanding action on climate change are burgeoning in this country. On Monday, more than a thousand young people showed up at their congressional representatives’ offices in Washington, D.C., pushing for their elected officials to back a Green New Deal. More than 140 of the activists were arrested. But the action worked, as 13 additional members of Congress pledged their support for the bill. On the same day in Katowice, Poland, the site of the COP24 summit, youth activists interrupted a ludicrous pro-coal event organized by the Trump administration by laughing and jeering, exposing it for the sham it was.
If Americans take a single lesson from the French, it should be to adopt a position of extreme distrust toward the rich and powerful. In other words, we need to rediscover our class consciousness. They are few and have most of the money. We are many and must demand our fair share. The many can exercise people-power over the few. It’s the only power we have got.