The “Yellow Vests” are a wake-up call for French ecologists
Not one but two protests wound their way through the streets of Paris last Saturday. On one side, the climate march, with around 2000 people braving a drizzly, abnormally mild December day. On the other, the Yellow Jackets, protesting against the rising costs of living and tax hikes. Groups clad in high visibility vests marched throughout the city. Every time you turned a corner you came across another fluorescent blur of anger.
That there were two different demonstrations is not (just) a sign of how much the French love a good protest, but proof of how two movements with a common enemy — a neoliberal system which fosters inequality and destroys natural resources — have been driven apart when they should be together. The star-crossed lovers of social justice and climate justice.
A certain branch of pro-environmental discourse has long tried to convince us that the planet can be saved by green capitalism and a shift in individual behaviour. A worldview in which the rich entrepreneurs are the saviours, middle-class consumers are the good guys and the poor, not being able to afford organic food or a house close to a metro station, are the baddies. Macron and his (now cancelled) fuel tax are the embodiment of this kind of “ecology”. Those with lower incomes would have borne the brunt of a measure supposedly designed to reduce emissions. Which appears even more unfair considering that the carbon footprint per head in France is significantly lower amongst the working classes than against the middle and upper classes. It’s not hard to see why one of the slogans frequently spray-painted on walls by Yellow Vest protestors is “ecology is a war against the poor.”
The environmental movement in France is quick to distance themselves from Macron — rightly so because their discourse does contain a real, in-depth criticism of the neo-liberal system and social inequalities. The problem is that ecologists are not very good at appealing to working-class French people. The vast majority of environmental activists in France are middle- class, educated, white and well-off. If someone from the working classes did show up to a meeting, they would be discouraged by the symbolic violence of the expensive hipster cafés where meetings often take place, or the fact that speakers tend not to…