Thursday, December 6, 2018 at 8:26 AM

The ‘Yellow Vests’: Paris Is Burning … Again

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

For years now, protesters have been setting The City of Lights ablaze nearly as often as campers have been setting The Golden State ablaze. Except that the grievances that invariably ignite the former are far more relatable than the carelessness that invariably cause the latter.

I first commented on those grievances in “World Beware: French Riots Affect Us All,” November 8, 2005. Muslims of African descent ignited the fire that time, aggrieved by chronic unemployment, discrimination, alienation, and marginalization – each of which remains a cultural spark plug. This quote from that commentary provides a little perspective:

Just as young blacks in America fought [during the 1960s] against the virulent racism their parents tolerated, young Muslims in France are fighting [today] against the caste-like presumption that they will provide the cheap labor their parents provided.

Back then, Jacques Chirac was president and Nicolas Sarkozy his interior minister responsible for law and order. But I noted that leaders of the Republic invariably seem imbued with the presumptions and prerogatives of France’s ancien régime, which continually misguide them in these matters.

This caused Chirac and Sarkozy to show the kind of arrogant indifference (or quizzical insouciance) towards these grievances that King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette showed towards those of the overtaxed paupers who eventually ignited the French Revolution.

To paraphrase General Charles de Gaulle, the French may know 365 ways to make cheese, but their leaders know only one way to make laws; that is, with the paternalism and condescension inherent in the concept of noblese oblige.

Which brings me to to President Emmanuel Macron and those who ignited the fire this time:

Macron has today caved in and suspended hated fuel tax hikes in a victory for the Yellow Vest protesters.

In a humiliating U-turn, the government said it was planning to freeze upcoming increases on regulated electricity and gas prices following emergency talks at the Elysee Palace.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told MPs that stricter vehicle emission controls set to kick in in January 2019 will also be suspended – one of the demands of the movement which erupted last month.

(The Daily Mail, December 4, 2018)

I suspect few of these protesters are Muslims of African descent. But their grievances are very similar. They are protesting the caste-like presumption that they will endure any burden political elites impose on them … for the general welfare. Only that presumption explains Macron thinking that working-class Frenchmen would blithely pay the lion’s share of the country’s carbon tax so France can lead the global fight against climate change.

Initially backed by people in small towns and rural France where most get around by car, the protests snowballed into a wider movement against Macron’s perceived bias in favour of the elite and well-off city dwellers. …

Analysts say most of those joining the ranks of the ‘yellow vests’ are [predominantly white] workers on lower middle incomes who say they barely scrape by and get scant public services in exchange for some of the highest tax bills in Europe.

(Aljazeera, December 4, 2018)

Inequities and iniquities characterize the fight against climate change. And I’ve been decrying them in this forum for nearly 15 years. My abiding complaint is that the carbon footprints the rich leave for business and pleasure dwarf those the poor leave for food and heat. Yet rich folks are continually lecturing poor folks about their use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

Macron would have been well-advised to tax luxury items like second homes, private jets, yachts, expensive cars, jewelry, and even champagne and foie gras. This, instead of attempting to fund his climate-change initiatives by taxing basic necessities like fuel and electricity, which burden the poor so disproportionately.

I’ve written far too many commentaries on this topic to count. Unfortunately, they’ve done little more than lump me together with the ‘heretics’ trying to temper increasing alarms about climate change with calming facts about environmental protection and conservation.

Therefore, on behalf of all proud heretics in this respect, let me hasten to clarify that, while acknowledging climate change as a fact but hardly an existential threat, we plead that there are many “Global Priorities Bigger than Climate Change” – as the critically acclaimed Danish environmentalist, Professor Bjorn Lomborg, proffered in his now seminal TED talk in 2005.

(“March to Save the Planet? Get Real!” The iPINIONS Journal, September 23, 2014)

Those global priorities include preventing diseases, alleviating poverty, and fighting corruption (everywhere), which is the root cause of so many ills. To be fair, France is not the only rich nation attempting to fight climate change at the expense of its poor citizens. I refer you in this regard to such commentaries as “Pioneer Climatologist Calls Paris Climate Deal ‘Bullsh*t’,” December 15, 2015.

But the following gives a sense of the political fight within this environmental one:

President Xi Jinping is straddling divisions between rich and poor nations, which reared their heads in Kyoto (1997), bedeviled attempts to set new goals in Copenhagen (2009), and seem likely to do the same in Paris. This, even with toxic smog (from smokestacks of coal-burning power plants) descending like fog almost daily over his mainland.

As always, those divisions revolve around poor nations demanding ‘climate justice,’ which would require rich nations to bear the cost of the carbon emissions poor nations believe will be the unavoidable by-product of their ongoing development.

(“Paris Talks on Climate Change to Avert an Apocalypse? Hardly…,” The iPINIONS Journal, December 2, 2015)

For the record, I remain convinced that the most feasible and sensible way to fight climate change is for all countries to adopt the rainbow of environmental legislation the US implemented in the early 1970s. I duly hail those laws every year in my “Earth Day” commentary.

That said, apropos of the grievances of the Yellow Vests being so relatable, this variation on Martin Niemöller’s famous admonition comes to mind:

First they exploited the paupers, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a pauper.

Then they exploited the blacks, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a black.

Then they exploited the migrants, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a migrant.

Then they exploited me, and now I see –

Because I have more in common with the paupers, the blacks, and the migrants

Than with the ruling elites – who have exploited us all.

Here’s to whites “on lower middle incomes” in America seeing the light. Because President Trump clearly thinks they would blithely forfeit healthcare and pay higher taxes so he can fulfill his promise to “Make America Great Again” (a.k.a. make the rich richer).

But I’m not holding my breath; after all, they are willfully accepting so much exploitation, they seem hell-bent on proving his boast that, for them, he can do no wrong. I digress …

The point is that I welcome this humiliation of the elitist Macron. Unfortunately, it took death and destruction. Reports are that three people have been killed, 260 injured, and too many cars burned, windows shattered, buildings vandalized, and monuments defaced to count.

Incidentally, I wonder if the irony was completely lost on protesters in yellow vests as they caused this death and destruction. Because the reason their vests are so common and accessible is that all French motorists are required to keep these “safety garments” in their vehicles … to wear if they run into trouble.

But I fully appreciate that the storming of the Arc de Triumph this time was like a rowdy picnic compared to The Storming of the Bastille. Of course, the latter set the precedent the Yellow Vests are following today, namely, protesting the exploitation of the poor and demanding change in unfair government policies. And no less a democrat than Thomas Jefferson would hail this as their right, their duty.

Finally, if Macron thinks merely postponing his carbon taxes for six months will end the protests, he’s in for a rude awakening. Not least because, given how Yellow Vest protesters got him to cave in on taxes, other aggrieved citizens will think similar protests could get him to cave in on their grievances too.

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!

Related commentaries:
world beware
March to save planet
Paris climate deal
Earth Day

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