On Saturday 17 November, 300,000 people gathered across France to demonstrate against an increase in fuel prices, a Government initiative aimed to accelerate the ecological transition. Self-proclaimed the “Gilets Jaunes” (referring to the yellow color of the safety vest that every motorist is required to keep in their vehicle), they organized about 2,000 operations, blocking roads and highways, and ultimately causing 1 fatality and about 500 injuries. The movement is likely to last longer and appears to be heavily supported by the French population, which raises many questions regarding the level of political prioritization that ecological transition should effectively have.

  • A new form of mobilization that is neither political nor unionist

Born a few weeks ago on social media, the “Gilets Jaunes” movement has achieved the performance of gathering about 300,000 persons with no precise national leader or organizer. Representatives of the movement who came in the media all state that their movement wants to keep its independence from traditional representative organizations such as political parties or unions. Despite a rather weak, structuration of the movement a poll conducted on the November 16th indicates that:

69% of the French supported the call to block roads and highways, a figure that is comparable to the popularity curve of Emmanuel Macron (around 75% being unsupportive of his action).

Also, major French unions did not take position clearly regarding this movement that illustrates what these unions have failed to achieve since President Macron’s election: organizing a large mobilization behind a common claim. According to CFDT (a Government-compatible worker union), calling for blockages wasn’t the most suitable option since the climate emergency requires a change in behavior that can no longer be ignored”. François Hommeril, President of the managers unions CFE-CGC recaps the current situation: “trade unions are stuck: follow the opinion against rising fuel prices OR defend the environment, which is a major issue for some organizations”.

  • What seems to be the (real) problem?

The most important claim of the “Gilets Jaunes” is the ongoing increase in fuel prices, which the government justifies by the necessary achievement of the objectives set by the State in terms of ecological transition.

While the government has recently announced a new increase in fuel taxes to come in January, the prices have increased by 19 cents for the essence fuel and by 31 cents for the diesel fuel since the beginning of President Macron’s mandate. In 2018, fuel taxes brought in a total of €34 billion for the state. Of these 34 billion, only 7.4 billion are directly earmarked for ecological transition, while the rest is earmarked for the State’s overall budget.

Even though 1/3 of the increase in fuel prices is related to rising taxes, the rest is explained by the rising price of fuel as such. The price of a barrel of oil has almost tripled since 2016, with natural consequences for the purchase price of fuel.

The French who have joined the “Gilets Jaunes” movement are often those who use their car on a daily basis, coming from rural or peri-urban areas. While fuel taxation in France is not much higher than in neighboring Europe and purchasing power is also aligned with other comparable EU Member States, it primarily affects a part of the French population who have long felt victimized by political elites. A part of the French population that suffers from the progressive decline of public services (courts, hospitals, public transport) and for whom the benefits of taxation are no longer tangible.

Rather than protesting the rise of gas prices, the “Gilets Jaunes” are expressing their overall discontent with taxes in general. “The “Gilets Jaunes” movement is the crystallization of a massive discontent of the French regarding their purchasing power, whose reveal feature is the increase in fuel taxes” explained Frédéric Dabi, Deputy Managing Director of INSEE (statistics institute).

What comes as a bigger surprise is the massive support of the French population to the “Gilets Jaunes”.

  • The President’s dilemma

According to a poll conducted over the weekend, 62% of French people states being more supportive of policies in favor of purchasing power compared to policies in favor of energy transition.

President Macron can only observe a trend that existed before his election and that is being confirmed over time: there is a growing gap between major French globalized cities and France peri-urban areas, which are poorly served by public transport and where public services are declining. When the government decides to align the taxation of diesel on that of petrol at a time when oil prices are skyrocketing worldwide, it poorly understands the daily difficulties faced by the French, and most likely committed a major communication mistake that could politically cost Macron a lot. 

The French who elected Emmanuel Macron have a profile far from the “Gilets Jaunes”: urban, graduated, well integrated into globalization and… committed to the issue of ecological transition. With less than a year to go before the European elections, President Macron faces the following dilemma: capitalizing on his electoral base that elected him in 2017 by going quicker on the ecological transition or trying to win back the France of the territories, the French whose “Gilets Jaune” movement carry the anger?

And more broadly, should Emmanuel Macron hear and adapt to this growing anger or should he and his Government keep leading the way towards achieving what he was initially elected for: ecological transition? One of the main initiatives that President Macron took once elected was the “Make our Planet Great again” Summit to respond to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Invited to the France 2 TV news on Sunday evening, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gave an initial response by saying that he heard “anger and suffering” but that the government would “stay the course” because it is not when you suffer that you change course“. A statement that reminds the one from his mentor, former Prime Minister Juppé during the 1997 blockages, that eventually forced him to resign and President Chirac to call for new legislative elections during which he lost his parliamentary majority…