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France’s Yellow Vest Protesters Want to Fight Climate Change

Trump says the violence is proof that people oppose environmental protection. He couldn't be more wrong.

James Arthur Gekiere/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly 2,000 people were arrested during anti-government protests in France over the weekend, the fourth in a row that the Yellow Vest demonstrations have turned violent. French President Emmanuel Macron has not yet addressed his country’s growing crisis. (He is expected to do so on Monday.) But America’s president did so on Saturday, arguing that the violence is proof that no one wants to fight climate change.

Trump isn’t the first to characterize France’s protests as a populist uprising against environmentalism. Last week, The Wall Street Journal editorial board called the protests a “global carbon tax revolt” against “green piety.” A piece for Forbes suggested that similar chaos could unfold in the United States if politicians pursue aggressive climate action. Writing in The Spectator, Brendan O’Neil praised the Yellow Vests for taking a stance against “eco-elitism.” “This is a people’s rebellion against the onerous consequences of climate-change policy, against the politics of environmentalism and its tendency to punish the little people for daring to live relatively modern, fossil-fueled lives,” he wrote.

France’s violent protests are indeed a response to a climate policy—specifically, a planned increase of the country’s already steep taxes on fuel, which would have a huge impact on France’s working class. But the Yellow Vests aren’t protesting all climate policy, or even taxes on carbon dioxide. They’re protesting a tax hike that came on top of several other regressive economic policies.

So it’s wrong to claim that the protesters oppose climate action. In fact, they want the opposite—they say so themselves.

In a communique issued on November 23, the Yellow Vests said France should “put in place a real ecological policy and not a few piecemeal fiscal measures.” The World Resources Institute, which translated the document, said in a blog post Friday that the protesters “highlight ecology as a top priority.”

The [Yellow Vests’] list of 42 demands includes proposals to make the climate transition fairer, and some demands call for even more ambitious climate action. The Yellow Vests are not against carbon pricing in general: They propose introducing fuel and kerosene taxes for ships and airplanes.

So what are the Yellow Vests protesting if not “green piety”? As Ghislain Coutard, the man who inspired the protesters’ signature clothing choice, put it, “The government does everything so that rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.” Macron has long been seen as implementing policies that make life harder for the working class and easier for the wealthy. The planned fuel tax increase was simply the breaking point. That’s why the violent protests continue even though France suspended the tax increase last week.

Everyday people in France want to fight climate change; they are more worried and outraged about the impacts of global warming than their European neighbors, according to the last European Perceptions of Climate Change report. They just don’t want low- and middle-income people to have to pay for solving a problem caused by multinational corporations. According to the report, most French people oppose raising electricity prices, or raising taxes on fuel, as a method of fighting climate change. The French government’s fuel tax—written into law before Macron took office—is exactly the kind of policy citizens have indicated they do not support.

But the French do support other climate policies. Significant majorities support the use of public funding to subsidize renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, the report showed. Large majorities also support the Paris climate agreement, contrary to Trump’s tweets. In fact, the report shows that 69 percent of French people support “high economic penalties for countries that refuse to be part of this agreement.”

There are lessons to be learned from France’s protests. “People will riot in the streets if you try a carbon tax” isn’t one of them. The Yellow Vest protests show the importance of crafting equitable climate policies that don’t make life harder for people who are already struggling. Those type of policies exist—and if they were implemented, fossil fuels would decline at a remarkable rate. Only Trump and the Wall Street Journal would be rioting then.