Climate hysteria may be essentially a psychological phenomenon, but it has become central to politics in the Western world. Every political party has a climate policy, however vague, but fervently defended. As a political phenomenon, climate hysteria can only be defeated politically, and it becomes important to identify the country or countries where the first skirmishes, and possibly the ultimate victory, are likely to happen. Suddenly, it seems that France might be the scene of the big battle.
My article on the rather sudden uprising of the French working class over a few centimes of carbon tax may have seemed rather over the top. After all, demonstrations with hundreds of thousands in the streets are regular occurrences in France. Why should this one be any different? And why is it important for climate sceptics?
Mass demonstrations in France have always been organised by trade unions or political parties and declared in advance to the local police authorities, with an agreed route and timetable, and stewards to keep order. There are always violent incidents, with black clad anarchists throwing bricks and tagging banks etc., but it’s just part of the ritual. But what has been happening over the past three days has been utterly unpredictable, improvised and uncontrollable.
A week ago the gilets jaunes were just a bunch of people grumbling on the internet about the cost of living. The plan to block roads on Saturday was a protest against the recent 6 centimes per litre rise in diesel, which was seen as the last straw for a population of small businessmen, artisans, and those living in suburbs or rural areas dependent on their cars. Saturday was going to be a one-off protest. Most of the 2000+ demonstrations were spontaneous affairs involving a few dozen people and not officially declared. There was no leadership, and the demonstrators were unanimous that they want nothing to do with political parties or unions. The government could have easily announced the suspension of the next 6 centimes rise in fuel prices planned for January, pending discussions. Instead, the prime minister announced on TV Sunday night that they wouldn’t budge, which led to the “yellow jackets” refusing to announce their demonstrations officially in advance, and turning to more aggressive actions, like blocking oil terminals.
This is now becoming a national insurrection. Everyone’s planning to march in Paris next Saturday. The first demonstrator has received a four month prison sentence for blocking the highway within a few hours of his “crime,” with no possibility of preparing a defence, and, according to the minister of the interior: “There will be others.” The TV news channels cover events nonstop, but even they fail to gauge the seriousness of what’s happening.
To give you an idea of how it feels to be at the beginning of a revolution:
Saturday the local boulangerie was closed. I met a neighbour and warned her. She said: “Yes the baker told me yesterday he might not be opening today. He lives on the other side of the bridge, which is blocked.”
I said: “You can buy bread at the grocer’s down the road.”
“What, The Arab’s?”
I’d forgotten that 40% of people round here vote National Front, who received over 50% of the vote of the working class in the last elections. Not the organised, unionised working class affiliated to the communist or socialist unions working for the big industries or the semi-nationalised railways, or energy companies, but the employees of small businesses struggling to survive. They’ve put on their yellow jackets, and suddenly they’re proud.
This morning the baker’s is open, but there’s no local paper because of the blockage. So I go on their internet site. The three nearest exits from the motorway have been blocked for three days, meaning that trucks coming to Europe’s largest fruit and vegetable market have to go on to Spain before they can turn round. Expect a shortage of Spanish oranges and green peppers in Northern Europe soon. A few students in one of our local lycées have tried to block the gates, set fire to some bins, then marched to neighbouring lycées to encourage them to come out in support. And the first petrol station has run out.
None of this has made the national news. When the panic buying and queueing at petrol stations starts, when millions of students join in, the government will have lost. And when a half a million people converge on Paris next Saturday, with no planned route for a march and no clear demand except the resignation of the president and the government …
The streets around the presidential palace are narrow and out of bounds. Last Saturday there were a thousand or so “yellow jackets” milling around trying to block junctions in central Paris. A few hundred found themselves within yards of the Elysée Palace and started chanting “Macron Resign!” The police dispersed them with tear gas and little violence. A panic in the narrow streets, which contain some of the world’s most expensive shops, could have been serious. Think what would happen if a few hundred thousand try to repeat the exploit.
But even if this is the beginning of an important mass movement, what has this to do with climate scepticism? The protest against the rise in the tax on petrol and diesel, which was at the origin of the movement, did not have a specifically anti-ecological aspect. I’ve seen banners with slogans saying “Ecology, yes. Tax rises, No.” There have been no protests against the principle of an energy transition. Yet.
The commentary in the media has been critical of the government’s clumsy handling of the crisis, of Macron’s evident bias in favour of the “haves,” the “start uppers,” and his frequent barbs against the “recalcitrant Gauls,” the “people who are nothing” the nationalist “lepers,” and the unemployed who can’t be bothered to “cross the road” to find a job. Well, someone crossed the road in front of a lorry today and got a four month jail sentence. But I have heard nobody yet in the media challenge the government’s policy of raising fuel prices in order to encourage a reduction in carbon emissions. Telling a plumber or refrigerator repair man to work from home or to travel by public transport seems to me to be a sure recipe for starting a revolution, but a poor way of initiating a debate about a rational energy policy.
Popular protest movements do not normally arise from rational disagreement on important points of policy, but rather from emotional reactions to people’s everyday experience. But when a movement rises to national importance, when it becomes rooted in the political landscape, it is obliged to face the questions of what it’s for and what it’s against – rationally. At that moment it is obliged to confront the supposedly rational discourse of the ruling class and either reject rationality or devise an alternative policy.
The government seems for the moment to have dropped the climate argument. Their spokesman this morning was emphasising the health aspect of limiting diesel use, mentioning the thousands of deaths from respiratory diseases, though he still managed to use the “think of the grandchildren” argument. The favourite adjective for describing the protest movement is “proteiform” (look it up.) The argument for a carbon tax is apparently just as proteiform as the protest against it.
Because, like everything done by this government, the tax on fossil fuels has been ill thought out, designed by marketing men with their eye on the green vote; rather than by politicians or economists. They could have learned from the experience of a previous government, which decided to raise a carbon tax on long distance lorries, and installed gantries over main roads with sophisticated electronics to check licence plates in Brittany. The Breton farmers understood that this wheeze to save the planet was nothing other than a tax on their cauliflowers and artichokes, and formed a grassroots movement, the “bonnets rouges,” who simply tore the gantries down. And Brittany has been one of the main centres of protest for the gilets jaunes, many of whom wear red wooly hats as well as their yellow vests.
What enrages the worker on a minimum wage or the small business owner is not just the idiocy of adding a rising tax on to the (until recently) rising price of petrol, but the fact that the first action of the Macron government was to award an 8 billion euro windfall to the super-rich, with the removal of the wealth tax on all but property, and a flat tax on all investment income, whatever the sum. I believe that in the nasty capitalist USA you still pay a hefty percentage in tax on the top slice of a high income, whatever its origin. (correct me if I’m wrong.) In France you pay the same 30% on unearned income whether you have hundreds in a savings bank or billions in shares.
And today, right on cue, Carlos Ghosn, the Brazilo-Lebano-French head of Renault, a world leader in diesel vehicles, hoping to become world leader in electric cars, has just been arrested in Japan, accused by Nissan, the company of which he is also president, of hiding 50 million dollars of undeclared income from the tax authorities.
So far, workers in government and big industry, the only ones who are unionised and used to organised protest, have been absent from the movement. The knowledge that one of France’s best paid bosses has been salting away fifty million more than his already astronomical salary might stir them a little. And if they join in…
So, won’t Macron simply give way a little, lower some taxes, and buy off the protest? He can’t, because his entire political career depends on bringing the French budget deficit down below the EU-designated red line of 3%. Otherwise, how can he look Madame Merkel in the eye? How can he lay claim to leadership of the European Union, stomp on Mrs May’s toes, and sneer at the “leprosy” of nationalism in Italy, Austria and elsewhere?
President Macron decided even before his election that his presidency was going to be about world leadership. Hence his espousal of the “success” of the Paris COP21, his hand wrestling with Trump, and his determination to “make the planet great again.” Economic growth is the other half what he was hoping for. Every odd hundred million euros grabbed off the working not-quite-poor is a step towards France escaping from the humiliation of being part of the leprous South of Europe and gaining respectability in the eyes of the unelected Euro-bureaucracy, and therefore towards Macron’s dream of leadership of a united Europe. Cough up, you yellow-vested turds, or the planet gets it.
[It’s bad karma for a climate sceptic to make predictions (or even “previsions” à la Kevin Trenberth and St. John of the Apocalypse) as to future events, even a mere week in advance. But based on current events, and even if the movement sputters to a halt tomorrow, it’s absolutely clear that no French government will ever again dare impose a carbon tax on a population just getting by on a minimum wage, in a country which hasn‘t seen unemployment drop below 8% in living memory. The green dream is dead in France.]