The Yellow Vests and the carbon wars
The Yellow Vest movement in France scored a victory, as the government of President Emmanuel Macron agreed to suspend a controversial fuel tax after weeks of increasingly violent protests. This may be concretely a win for the working class, but the fact that Macron imposed the tax in the name of reducing carbon emissions has provided fodder for anti-environmental content to the protest movement. Exploiting this moment, Donald Trump blamed the uprising on the Paris climate accord, tweeting: "The Paris Agreement isn't working out so well for Paris. Protests and riots all over France. People do not want to pay large sums of money, much to third world countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment. Chanting 'We Want Trump!' Love France."
The chants of "We Want Trump" are hopefully wishful thinking. But the far right is clearly exploiting the protest movement—and, it seems, influencing it. The Yellow Vests' official list of demands is basically populist—calling for tax relief, protection of wages, pensions, social security, public property, etc. But it equivocates dangerously on the critical issue of immigration. It calls for asylum-seekers to be "well treated." But an addendum of "unofficial" (pending?) demands states ominously: "Prevent migratory flows that cannot be accommodated or integrated, given the profound civilizational crisis we are experiencing."
French authorities have opened an investigation into possible Russian influence behind the Yellow Vest protests, following reports that social-media accounts linked to Moscow have increasingly targeted the movement. (Bloomberg) There is certainly no reason to suggest the movement is Kremlin astro-turf, but Vladimir Putin's political and apparently monetary support for French far-right leader Marine Le Pen is well known.
Meanwhile at the UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland, Putin and Trump have joined with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in an effort to block approval of a landmark report on the need to keep global warming below 1.5 C. (The Guardian)
In an analysis, the anarchist think-tank CrimethInc notes the far-right and xenophic politics of some of the leaders of the supposedly leaderless and "apolitical" Yellow Vests, and also astutely deconstructs how Macron's neoliberal environmentalism has played into the hands of the anti-environmental backlash:
Diesel vehicles comprise two thirds of vehicles in France, where diesel is less expensive than regular gas. After decades of political policies aimed at pushing people to buy cars that run on diesel, the government has decided that diesel fuels are no longer "eco-friendly" and therefore people must change their cars and habits. Macron reduced taxes on the income of the super-rich at the beginning of his administration; he has not taken steps to make the wealthy pay for the transition to more ecologically sustainable technology, even though the wealthy have been the ones to benefit from the profits generated by ecologically harmful industrial activity. Consequently, Macron's ecological arguments for the gas tax been largely ignored. Many people see the decision to increase the tax on gas as yet another attack on the poor.
In a follow-up piece, "Fighting for the Soul of the Yellow Vest Movement," CrimethInc asks: "If far-right groups can hijack movements, as they did in Ukraine and Brazil, can anti-capitalists and anti-authoritarians reorient them towards more systemic solutions?" They draw an analogy to the 2011 Occupy movement in the US, where right-populists also played for influence, but ultimately "anarchists and other militant opponents of capitalism and white supremacy seized the initiative, especially in Occupy Oakland, focusing the movement on confronting the root causes of poverty and ensuring that many of the people who were radicalized during Occupy adopted emancipatory rather than reactionary politics."
We aren't so sure that Occupy Wall Street had such consistently good politics (although Occupy Oakland was assuredly in the vanguard). We also aren't so sure that Ukraine's Maidan movement was so thoroughly reactionary. But the reality remains: In France today, as in Ukraine in 2014 and New York and Oakland in 2011, the challenge is to reject fuzzy populism that can be exploited by the far right and advance a revolutionary position. In this case, that means a ruthless critique rather than consumerist embrace of the car culture that has been imposed by urban planners, and a recognition of the criticality of addressing the planetary climate crisis—but also intransigently demanding that the costs of transition to a carbon-free future not be borne by the working class.
The coming weeks will be decisive, and how this struggle within the Yellow Vests plays out has implications that go far beyond the borders of France.