The French are revolting. So what? Aren’t they always?
Somewhere between a half a million and a million came out on the streets to demonstrate against Macron’s last reform, and the one before that, and the one before that. But that was the unions and the left wing parties, so no-one took any notice. This is different because it’s the people – spontaneously, unorganised – and some tens or hundreds of thousands are out today, not marching in an orderly fashion through the avenues of Paris, but blocking the roads and autoroutes in over 1500 different demonstrations.
It’s about the rise in fuel prices, of three centimes per litre on petrol and six centimes on diesel. (That’s tuppence ha’penny or fivepence to you, or three to seven cents Over There. To convert to gallons, multiply by 4.5 in the UK and Canada, and by 3.8 in the U.S.)
Four weeks ago people started complaining on Facebook at this latest rise in the cost of living, and suggested a protest, with the fluorescent jackets we’re obliged by law to carry in our cars as the identifying badge. So the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Jackets) were born, and in a few weeks they’ve come from nothing to being the biggest threat to Macron in the 18 rocky months of his presidency.
But the government is not giving way. They’ve already lost one minister of the environment and can’t afford to lose another, since, in the bizarre cabinet that Macron built, the environment minister is the most important minister after the Prime Minister, responsible for energy and transport, as well as for protecting the country from fire, floods, and climate change. And so the gradually rising taxe sur le carbone must stay, especially on diesel, which has been subsidised for years in France.
As a sop to public opinion, and in a desperate effort to weaken support for the Gilets Jaunes, the government has announced some measures to soften the blow, such as a prime de conversion of 4000 euros to buy a new, less polluting vehicle, for those of a revenu modeste, that is, who have an annual income rather less than the price of an electric car even after the prime. The existing prime de conversion of 1000 euros has already had a huge success, with 200,000 people using it to turn in their old motor for a more recent one. Except that 60% of the newer vehicles purchased were second hand, 47% were diesel, and only 5% electric or hybrid. In a few years’ time, the person who was given a thousand euros to buy a second hand diesel car will be able to claim another 4000 euros to trade it in for another second hand diesel car, and all in the name of phasing out the petrol engine.
For years the French subsidised diesel on the grounds that it was better for the balance of payments, producing more kilometres per litre in a country with no native energy source, and Renault and Peugeot became experts in producing diesel-fuelled cars. Then they discovered that it didn’t just smell foul and turn your Kleenex grey but was actually bad for you. So the tax on diesel is rising to align the price with that of petrol.
Oh, and after years of providing tax breaks for installing new oil-fired central heating to cut down on smog from wood burning stoves, they’ve now announced that in ten years they’re going to ban oil-fired central heating, which is used largely by people in rural areas who don’t have mains gas. Not that mains gas would be much use to them, since the tax on gas is rising even faster than the tax on petrol. (Sorry to U.S. readers for any confusion.) According to the IEA, France is sitting on 80% of Europe’s frackable gas – enough to keep the country self-sufficient in energy for centuries. But the Macron government has just banned, not only fracking, but any extraction of any fossil fuels whatsoever on mainland France. It’s as if Marie Antoinette said: “Let them eat cake,” and then banned cake-making in France on the grounds that it was bad for the figure.
The middle classes (in U.S. and French usage – “working class” in English) are hopping mad with Macron. But, as the government loves to point out, they are in favour of the energy transition which Macron is determined to implement. The French don’t like nuclear, which currently provides two thirds of the country’s electricity, but they do like their peasants, whose intensive production of European-Union-subsidised pigs and sugar beet relies on vast amounts of diesel fuel. They like the idea of renewable energy, but they hate the wind turbines which now disfigure every skyline here in Southern France, and the solar panels which are naturally installed on the cheapest land, which is also in the most natural, unusable, picturesque spots on isolated mountainsides inhabited by threatened species.
Energy transition is not as easy as politicians first thought.