Of all the factors that govern the purchasing power of a country’s populace, the stakes that rest over the price of fuel are inordinately high, as it single-handedly influences the costs of all other products that line up storefronts. The French government has found this out the hard way, as deeply dismayed citizens queued up the iconic Champs Elysees boulevard to protest against the steep rise in diesel taxes.
Call for protests have been echoing across France’s social media for weeks, urging people to descend on Paris to ‘show the government some force.’ However, the scale of the protest was unexpected, with the people quickly turning violent, throwing rocks and burning vehicles. Called the ‘Yellow Vest’ movement – named after the high-visibility safety jackets that drivers need to keep in their cars – the protests have already left two people dead and over 600 injured.
A fraction of the agitators now calls for the resignation of Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, with the government pointing fingers at the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen, to having orchestrated the demands. That said, the cacophony on the streets seem to be at a loss for direction, as the protests lack clear leadership at the helm and are driven by different demands.
The root cause of the demonstration is the government’s interest in phasing out fossil fuels in a decade, and the subsequent increase in taxes to force people to change direction and adopt alternate environmentally sustainable forms of mobility. Macron, who assumed office with the promise of championing the fight against global warming, has passed economically-abrasive laws including a ban to end drilling across the country for oil and gas excavations by 2040.
Part of the plan is to steadily increase the use of electric vehicles in France, which the government believes could be expedited by raising taxes over diesel. Though oil prices have gone down steadily over the last month to record a one-year low, France has seen little respite, as the price of one gallon of diesel stands at nearly $6.50.
The Macron government is looking to further impose another 6.5 cents per liter of diesel and 2.9 per liter of petrol from January, which would worsen the blow. This has obviously not gone down well with the French people, as both far-left and far-right parties got down to the streets to protest.
“This government hasn’t understood the anger of the French,” said Olivier Faure, the secretary general of the socialist party in a statement. “We were the first party to express our total support for this movement.”
All eyes are now on France, as it battles at the crossroads of dependency on fossil fuels and a more sustainable future through low-carbon alternative mobility. France has implemented several reforms in the transportation corridor including a ban on old cars that run on diesel. For instance, the Greater Paris region will limit the circulation of old diesel cars from 2019, with vehicles that are older than the turn of this millennium being banned. This comes at the wake of Central Paris, which has already banned pre-2000 diesel cars since 2017.
Despite all these reforms, the air quality of Paris has remained poor, with a study from environmental group Transport & Environment showing that breathing the Parisian air year long would be equivalent to smoking 183 cigarettes. The study also pointed out that air quality could be even worse, as it did not account for the frequent rigging of monitoring stations by authorities for fear of a backlash on bad results.
The horror story with air quality is not localized to Paris, but seems to be a recurring problem across many French cities. At the wake of this, fifteen French metropolitan areas including Nice, Lyon, Aix-Marseille, and Toulouse have also agreed to effect similar bans and low-emission zones across their city limits by 2020.