"Yellow vest" protesters in Paris and Green New Dealers at home: Enemies, or future comrades?

Implacable opponents? Maybe not: To succeed, the environmental movement must help build an economic future

By Carl Pope

Contributing Writer

Published December 5, 2018 7:00AM (EST)

Demonstrators walk near the Arc de Triomphe during a protest of "yellow vests." (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs, on December 1, 2018 in Paris. - Anti-government protesters torched dozens of cars and set fire to storefronts during daylong clashes with riot police across central Paris on December 1, as thousands took part in fresh "yellow vest" protests against high fuel taxes.  (Afp/getty Images)
Demonstrators walk near the Arc de Triomphe during a protest of "yellow vests." (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs, on December 1, 2018 in Paris. - Anti-government protesters torched dozens of cars and set fire to storefronts during daylong clashes with riot police across central Paris on December 1, as thousands took part in fresh "yellow vest" protests against high fuel taxes. (Afp/getty Images)

The fiery street protests challenging French President Emmanuel Macron over his proposed higher taxes on gasoline and the young climate activists of the Sunrise Movement who sat in at prospective House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office might seem like antagonists – one resisting, the other seeking, faster and more ambitious movement away from fossil fuels. I’m not so sure about that, though. Some deep currents connect the two movements, currents that raise a fundamental challenge for the climate movement – how to shed the issue’s historic framing as a question of austerity and sacrifice.

The Paris protesters’ uniform is the brightly colored outer garment that French motorists are required to carry for roadside emergencies – so they are known as les gilets jaunes, or the "yellow vests." Their movement rejects any right-left political label; they identify simply as drivers! The triggering issue was that Macron proposed a (modest) increase in gasoline taxes, to finance France’s transition to clean energy and to encourage purchase of more efficient cars. It sounds sensible. But like all sales taxes, this one is regressive by definition, would have hit rural and small-town France disproportionately hard. 

Gas is already famously expensive in France, more than $6 a gallon, and most people in rural have no realistic alternative to driving. Low-income citizens aren’t buying new cars of any sort, let alone the most fuel-efficient models. Macron was already perceived as favoring the Parisian elite, who typically don't drive their own cars to work every day, enjoy access to mass transit and can afford the modest cost increases in their leisure travel.

The protests quickly morphed into something broader and hence harder for Macron to respond to. Eighty percent of the public support the yellow vest movement, which is raising the fundamental question of whether, as France modernizes and reforms -- Macron’s platform – it will leave the “other France,” the marginal middle class and working poor, behind with lagging incomes, rising taxes and ever-higher cost of living cost of living.

Upon his return from the G20 summit in Argentina, Macron was forced to back down on the fuel tax, at least for now. It would have been a small increase: About 12 cents a gallon for regular gasoline, 28 cents on diesel fuel. But it’s symbolic. As an anti-tax protest coming from the “forgotten” France, the yellow-vest moment has a somewhat similar feel to the "economic anxiety" that drove some blue-collar Americans to support Donald Trump. This entire episode speaks of the cost of “austerity,” meaning that when society is perceived as living beyond its means, it is the average person, not the privileged insider, who must scale back.

The protesters sum up their attitude with this slogan: “The government talks about the end of the world. We are worried about the end of the month.” The immediate response to Macron’s attempt to address the grievances was that Macron had failed to confront the real issue – salaries and purchasing power.

There lies the potential bridge to the friendly sit-in by young climate campaigners in Nancy Pelosi’s office. Carrying signs praising clean energy and calling for a “Green New Deal,” they posed a sharp contrast to the yellow-vested protesters in Paris. Members of the new Democratic majority quickly rallied to their demands. While health care was the Democrats' dominant issue in the midterm elections, clean energy and climate were the first post-election progressive demands. Indeed, how to structure the party’s climate strategy has become the focus of a generational clash within the newly-elected Democratic House majority. Exactly what this means in policy terms remains to play out.

But all framings of the “Green New Deal” concept, beginning with Tom Friedman’s launch of the idea as a response to the economic slowdown of the Great Recession, conspicuously frame climate action as the 21st-century version of economic stimulus -- investment in innovation. The rest of the package varies. Friedman’s version was  centrist, with a focus on infrastructure investment, while the 2018 version promoted by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others tilts left of center, with a stronger emphasis on equity, employment and wage issues. But at its heart the Green New Deal is first and foremost about the end of the month as well as the end of the world.

Is this just a slogan, or will it work in practice? The American evidence is that as a standalone concept, it may not be enough. Midterm referenda on carbon taxes in Washington state and renewable energy mandates in Arizona, even though framed as pro-growth and pro-jobs, were cut down by a deluge of corporate spending. But in California, the Republican Party bet its future on trying to repeal a gas tax increase put in place by outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown – and fell humiliatingly short, losing all of seven of its “at risk” seats in Congress and yielding a supermajority to Democrats in the state legislature.

This was only the latest failure of “carbon populism” to roll back the tide of clean energy investments in California. But there’s a reason for that. California has been careful to ensure that the economic stimulus benefits of green energy preceded the austerity part of the package – so that when, for example, the oil industry tried to roll back the state’s long-term carbon cap, voters were already benefiting from a surge of green energy jobs.  Then, as revenues began to flow in from the carbon auctions, the state set aside 25 percent of those revenues for the benefit of low-income communities, a figure raised four years later to 35 percent.

When the state raised the gas tax in 2017, those revenues were dedicated to repairing and improving the state’s existing transportation systems, including roads and highways that are of critical importance to low-income and rural Californians, and whose repair generates blue-collar jobs not just in cities, but in small towns and agricultural areas. Green stimulus has been an experience, not just a slogan, in California.

So “Green New Deal” strategies – not just messages – have proven politically effective at turning back “carbon populism” in California. Equally important, they have enabled California to continually increase both the breadth and the ambition of its climate programs, so that at this moment the world’s fifth-largest economy is also moving the fastest towards the deep decarbonization called for by the Paris Climate Agreement.

The climate movement, because of its roots in environmentalism, with its skepticism about “growthmania,” has had a hard time consistently embracing and implementing climate solutions as steps towards equity and prosperity.  But the fires around the Arc de Triomphe should remind us that if we want entire societies to decarbonize, we have to bring entire societies into the economic future as well.


By Carl Pope

Carl Pope is the co-author of "Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet." He is the former CEO and chairman of the Sierra Club.