Climate justice: French ‘gilets jaunes’ protests provide lessons for countries transitioning to low-carbon economies

France has experienced months of regular clashes between the ‘gilets jaunes’ protestors and police. Since the first national day of protests on 17 November 2018, yellow-jacketed protestors have barricaded roundabouts across the country and damaged property. The protests have hit the French economy, with motorways closed and hundreds of speed cameras vandalised.

The protests were triggered by a proposed tax rise for diesel and petrol. David Desforges is an environmental lawyer based in Paris. ‘France has promoted the diesel engine for the past forty years, with favourable tax breaks,’ he says. ‘Then, to implement its energy transition program, the Government changes gear. That was bound to lead to protests.’

The protests also followed French President Emmanuel Macron’s reversal in October 2018 of the l’impot de la solidarité sur la fortune, known as the ‘fortune tax’. This was a tax levied on French citizens worth more than €1.3m. Although it affected only around 300,000 individuals, the tax was a symbolic statement of egalité – equality.

These changes come at a time when an agricultural crisis sees some French farmers living on less than €300 per month and nine million people in France reportedly struggling to make ends meet.

The decision to end the fortune tax has been labelled Macron’s ‘original sin’ and has earned him the unfortunate title of ‘President of the rich’. ‘The fact is that there are a lot of people in France who essentially have little or no purchasing power. Macron symbolises inequality in the system,’ says Desforges.

Els Reynaers Kini, Senior Vice-Chair of the IBA Environment, Health and Safety Law Committee and a partner at MV Kini in India, agrees. ‘If you look at the tax regime, the poorest are being burdened excessively,’ she says. ‘France has had its fair share of tax scandals, and these people have had enough.’

“It is not so much that Macron is introducing environmental goals that is the problem, it is that these protestors feel that Macron is asking them to take on the greater burden of those goals

Els Reynaers Kini
Senior Vice-Chair, IBA Environment, Health and Safety Law Committee


The gilets jaunes have been supported by some climate change campaigners, who link social justice with climate policy. Meanwhile, some commentators have criticised media coverage of the French protests, suggesting that labelling the protests as a critique of fuel taxes misses the protestors’ broader concerns over inequality.

‘It is not so much that Macron is introducing environmental goals that is the problem, it is that these protestors feel that Macron is asking them to take on the greater burden of those goals,’ explains Reynaers Kini. ‘These protestors don’t want to be singled out, particularly if they feel that the system is already weighed against them.’

‘This is not about climate policy,’ argues Catherine Cameron, Director at Agulhas: Applied Knowledge, a research and consultancy organisation that has recently published a report on how countries can successfully transition to a low-carbon economy. ‘It is more resonant of the poll tax in the UK in 1990,’ Cameron says. ‘It is a response to France’s overdue economic restructuring that many European countries grappled with back then. Also, France has different challenges when it comes to transitioning to a low-carbon economy because so much of its energy production is based on nuclear, which is already low carbon.’


gilet jaune

In early December Macron made a U-turn on the fuel tax. He also announced that the minimum wage will increase in 2019 and that he is looking at other measures to improve the purchasing power of French citizens. There is even talk of reinstating the fortune tax.

The French are not the first to react angrily to fuel tax rises. In Mexico, the introduction of the ‘gasolinazo’ – a 20 per cent increase in gasoline prices – led to angry protests in early 2017. In Australia, a carbon tax drew protests when introduced and was later repealed in 2014 when a new government came to power.

This hints at a problem with onboarding voters to taxes that are aimed at radically changing behaviours. The gilets jaunes, then, may not be the last word on the subject.

The protests might though provide some lessons for climate policy-makers. ‘There can be no doubt that if countries are transitioning to a low-carbon economy, and they don’t get it right, they will see protest of the same magnitude and flavour as we have seen in France,’ Cameron says. ‘Our research found that if you include people in a stakeholder dialogue process you can transition to a low-carbon economy faster and more smoothly.’

The gilets jaunes protests continue to play out on the streets of Paris and the roundabouts of the regions, and not in the French National Assembly or in the Senate. The dramatic scenes are not only a reflection of the strength of feeling, but could suggest a systemic failure of the democratic process in France.

“The protests are more resonant of the poll tax in the UK in 1990. They are a response to France’s overdue economic restructuring that many European countries grappled with back then

Catherine Cameron
Director, Agulhas: Applied Knowledge


As Desforges explains, Macron uses ‘legislative ordnances’, which bypass parliament, to implement his reforms more quickly. ‘He is basically viewed as dictating these policies,’ says Desforges.

There is also an apparent failure of political parties and of trade unions to channel discontent. ‘We are witnessing a risk of wreckage of democracy in the name of referendums, the contours of which remain vague,’ says Desforges. ‘The protestors do not feel represented by Macron, nor by any elected officials, except mayors. They rely on getting their representation through social media.’

In mid-January, Macron launched the ‘great national debate’, a three-month engagement push across France. As part of the ‘debate’, mayors and residents will be able to organise town-hall meetings and ‘regional citizen conferences’ aimed at providing more orderly outlets for concern.

Polly Botsford is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at polly@pollybotsford.com