Revolutionary France challenges Macron on climate change policy

“U-turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” Margaret Thatcher directed this famous line at those who expected her to bow to trade union demands at the outset of her premiership in the early 1980s. Fast forward three decades to another new leader across the English Channel, who is facing his own set of pressures as he tries to rule an unruly French nation.

President Emmanuel Macron returned home from the Group of 20 summit in Argentina last Sunday to survey the destruction in Paris to public and private property after days of violent street protests, the likes of which the country has not seen in more than a decade. Macron, elected last year on a wave of popular cross party support, is now facing humiliating u-turns on a ranges of policies he himself holds dear and which were central to his election platform. With a new poll showing that his popularity has tumbled to 23 percent, the gentleman, it seems, is now for turning.

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The latest round of demonstrations began in November with what started as a typically French protest by motorists angry at a proposed tax increase on petrol and diesel. The revenues raised by the tax were meant to help wean the country off fossil fuels and towards a greener future in keeping with the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement in 2015. At the peak last month, there were close to 300,000 protesters, many of whom are the moderate voters who catapulted Macron into office. They saw the tax as patently unfair because they need to drive their diesel cars in parts of France not serviced to adequate public transport.

The protest quickly turned into a broader “yellow vest” movement, named after the fluorescent high visibility vests that all motorists in France are legally obliged to carry in their vehicles. Lacking any clear leadership and coordinated through social media, the movement has attracted radicals from the political left and right, as well as many moderates who broadly support the goals but not the political violence. The anger turn sharply against the government and Macron and, over the weekend, a third march in less than a month saw rioting break out in central Paris. In France, when there are peaceful protests, violence is never far away. Not only was anger focused on the unfair fuel tax, the movement has developed, over the last two weeks, an anti-government, anti-capitalist, and anti-Macron agenda.

After Argentina, rumors swirled that Macron would reimpose a state of emergency, something that he ended when he took office after a number of devastating terrorist attacks during the previous presidency. Instead, he announced a humiliating policy u-turn in the face of mounting public anger. On Tuesday, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe admitted, “One would have to be deaf and blind not to see it and not to hear it. No tax is worth putting in danger the unity of the nation.” The government, he announced, would enact a suspension of the fuel tax for six months.

On Wednesday, another policy u-turn emerged, this time focused on reimposing a tax on the wealthiest of French residents, another attempt to appease the restless “yellow jacket” movement. Upon entering office, Macron abolished the wealth tax, stating that it would make France less competitive and less attractive for wealthy individuals to create jobs. Many saw this move as his “original sin” and Macron earned the nickname “president of the rich” from a significant percentage of the population.

Where does this leave his policy agenda? As one of the main supporters of the Paris climate agreement, Macron had hoped that the fuel tax would nudge French motorists out of their polluting diesel cars to reduce the dependency on fossil fuels. It is without doubt an embarrassing climb down from the premier climate change champion in Europe. As leaders from across the world meet in Poland this week to discuss ways to save the planet from the effects of global warming, events in Paris offer an important lesson as nations seek to implement the climate agreement.

That lesson is how to avoid widening the inequality gap while at the same time taking measures to reduce carbon emissions. The policy u-turns in France might bring some respite to its unpopular president, but they have done nothing for the efforts to tackle climate change moving forward.

Michael J. Geary is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He is also an associate professor of European history at Norwegian University of Science and Technology.