Brexit dead­line

May is not for turn­ing

The West Australian - - INSIDE COVER -

The scenes from Paris have been ar­rest­ing — pro­test­ers march­ing down the Champ­sEl­y­sees, the grand­est av­enue in the city, hurl­ing pro­jec­tiles at po­lice and be­ing tear-gassed in re­turn.

But it is in smaller towns and cities such as Be­san­con, nes­tled in the foothills near the Swiss border, where the anger is most deeply felt.

Peo­ple here are de­pen­dent on their cars, and so they are es­pe­cially frus­trated with ris­ing diesel prices and a now-scrapped petrol tax — the is­sue at the core of the na­tional “yel­low vest” move­ment that has pro­duced marches and road­blocks through­out France in re­cent weeks.

“Ask a Parisian, for him none of this is an is­sue, be­cause he doesn’t need a car,” said Marco Pa­van, 55, who has driven trucks and taxi cabs in and around Be­san­con for 30 years.

“We live on the side of a moun­tain. There’s no bus or train to take us any­where. We have to have a car.”

Many peo­ple here are also keenly frus­trated with their Pres­i­dent. They see Em­manuel Macron as part of an elit­ist co­terie that nei­ther un­der­stands nor cares how they live, or how the de­cline of tra­di­tional in­dus­try has hol­lowed out their city and lim­ited their prospects.

“And then there’s the dis­dain — he openly mocks peo­ple,” said Yves Rol­let, 67, a Be­san­con re­tiree, who said he had par­tic­i­pated in the protests be­cause he was fed up with how Macron gov­erned, dis­mis­sive of poor and work­ing peo­ple.

Rol­let re­called an in­ci­dent in Septem­ber when Macron told a young, un­em­ployed land­sca­per that it should be easy to find a job. “If you’re will­ing and mo­ti­vated, in ho­tels, cafes and restau­rants, con­struc­tion, there’s not a sin­gle place I go where they don’t say they’re look­ing for peo­ple,” the Pres­i­dent, a for­mer in­vest­ment banker, said to the young man.

“We called him the Pres­i­dent of the Rich from the begin­ning,” Rol­let said.

For his part, Macron has sought to be em­pa­thetic and more hum­ble, while also in­sist­ing that he will not cave to violent de­mands or re­voke the petrol tax (which he sub­se­quently did) — a prod­uct of the coun­try’s cli­mate change com­mit­ments.

“One can­not be on Mon­day for the en­vi­ron­ment and on Tues­day against the in­crease of fuel prices,” he said in a re­cent speech on en­ergy.

Macron ac­knowl­edged that French pol­icy hadn’t done much to ad­dress the ex­pense of liv­ing in big French cities other than to en­cour­age peo­ple to live fur­ther out and buy cars.

“They are not the per­pet­u­a­tors of this sit­u­a­tion, they are sim­ply the first vic­tims,” he said. “We must, there­fore, lis­ten to the protests of so­cial alarm, but we must not do so by re­nounc­ing our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for to­day and to­mor­row, be­cause there’s also an en­vi­ron­men­tal alarm.”

Since his elec­tion in May last year, Macron has been one of the world’s lead­ing ad­vo­cates for ac­tion to com­bat cli­mate change. He un­suc­cess­fully tried to con­vince US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to re­main within the 2015 Paris Cli­mate Ac­cords, and he hosted a sec­ond ma­jor cli­mate sum­mit in Paris in De­cem­ber 2017.

France has more diesel cars than any other coun­try in Europe, and higher taxes on diesel has been part of the cli­mate bar­gain from the begin­ning.

Paris and its sur­round­ing sub­urbs, mean­while, have moved to ban older model diesel cars from their roads. And Macron’s Gov­ern­ment com­mit­ted France to ban­ning the sales of all petrol-pow­ered cars by 2040.

Macron’s op­po­nents on both the far-left and the far-right have lent their sup­port to the yel­low vest move­ment, mak­ing the protests eas­ier to dis­miss as a politi­cised spec­ta­cle.

And though Macron’s ap­proval rat­ing has fallen to record lows, that can also be dis­counted by the his­tor­i­cal trend that the French typ­i­cally turn against their pres­i­dents through­out their term.

As Macron put it in a Der Spiegel in­ter­view last year: “The French want to elect a king, but they would like to be able to over­throw him when­ever they want. You have to be pre­pared to be dis­par­aged, in­sulted and mocked — that is in the French na­ture.”

But so­ci­ol­o­gists and anti-poverty ad­vo­cates warn that some of the frus­tra­tion un­der­ly­ing the yel­low vest protests is real — the in­evitable re­sult of decades of so­cial frac­ture be­tween ru­ral France, in­creas­ingly de­void of re­sources, and the coun­try’s pros­per­ous large cities.

“It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand this move­ment is not at all an op­po­si­tion to the en­vi­ron­ment,” said Benoit Co­quard, an ex­pert at the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Agro­nomic Re­search in Di­jon, which is in the same ad­min­is­tra­tive re­gion as Be­san­con.

Co­quard said the is­sue was a per­ceived dou­ble stan­dard. What is dis­puted is that drivers from the mid­dle and lower classes are made to pay, but that in their eyes we don’t ask enough of the big com­pa­nies and the rich, who also pol­lute the most be­cause they of­ten take air­planes,” he says.

A com­mon re­frain among pro­test­ers is that fuel prices and other so­cial charges have in­creased at the same time as Macron’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has axed France’s fa­mous wealth tax. Macron’s ar­gues it is the rich who will help stim­u­late the econ­omy and drive down the coun­try’s stub­bornly high un­em­ploy­ment.

Pa­van, the driver, said France has to be con­scious of the en­vi­ron­ment, “but it’s a change ev­ery­body has to make — not just work­ing peo­ple”.

“Why do the lit­tle peo­ple have to pay, but the big dogs pay noth­ing? The peo­ple have a feel­ing of in­jus­tice,” he says.

You have to be pre­pared to be dis­par­aged, in­sulted and mocked.

Em­manuel Macron

Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages

Pro­test­ers near the Arc de Tri­om­phe.

Em­manuel Macron in Paris.

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