Paris is burning: Fuel tax protestors battle France's anti-diesel efforts
Over a remarkably short period of time the center of Paris has been turned inside out, with hundreds of protestors clashing with police, looting stores and setting shops and cars on fire along the Champs-Elysees and other main avenues in the French capital. The riots -- easily the worst in decades -- have been sparked by a diesel tax as part of the current government's climate agenda: Emmanuel Macron's administration introduced higher fuel taxes along with incentives for electric cars, as part of his platform of fighting climate change with the long-term targets of reducing carbon emissions by 40 percent by the year 2030, and phasing out gas and diesel cars by 2040. The opposition to the gas and diesel taxes was greatly exacerbated by a 22-percent hike in diesel prices within the last 12 months as a result of market factors: Protestors fear that a further tax on diesel and gas will have a significant economic impact on daily life.
The wider implication for metropolitan areas seen in these protests -- the most violent in France in recent memory -- is a pushback against an anti-pollution agenda that exacts even an incremental cost for those less able to cope with the economic burden. Another troubling implication is that the protests are not affiliated with any political party, especially any party with a declared anti-green stance, signaling that economic conditions and social media coordination are themselves enough to cause thousands to riot in a major European capital.
The introduction of higher fuel taxes followed the city's ban on older gas and diesel vehicles that was phased in over a year ago that also caused consternation among a segment of the population, which saw it as a tax on poor but not car-less residents, but failed to lead to violent protests. This time was different, and two weeks of the center of Paris looking like the center of Kiev circa 2014 during the latest "Maidan" revolution is a reflection of how incremental steps toward far-off pollution reduction goals can spark very real opposition once those steps start to hit car owners' wallets.
The yellow vests themselves -- items that French motorists are obligated to carry in their vehicles for road safety purposes -- have become the uniform of the fuel tax protestors. The protests have spread beyond Paris, with protestors blocking roads in Nice, Toulouse and Marseilles.
France has the largest percentage of diesel cars on the road than any other country in Europe, and the hikes in prices are a part of the country's commitment to phase out gas and diesel vehicles by 2040. Even though the green tax, by all accounts, is a step in that direction, France's environment minister resigned in protest in August of this year claiming that the Macron government was not taking enough steps against pollution. There's more to it than diesel prices, of course: Many of those sympathetic to the yellow vest movement say that the poorest citizens are being forced by the government to carry the greatest burden of the fuel tax. The argument is that those least able to afford to do so are carrying most of the weight of the government's anti-pollution agenda, as was the case with the recent ban on older cars that was viewed as discriminating against the city's poorest residents.
French authorities have indicated that fringe groups had infiltrated the protests and were responsible for some of the worst clashes with police, which saw liberal use of tear gas and water cannons all through the center of Paris.
It's difficult to predict where this wave of protests will take the country, but there are plenty of issues that are fueling this movement beyond the tax on diesel.