From the outset, Macron’s environmental agenda was both practical and symbolic, a way to make France more ecological and to distinguish himself, not just in Europe but on the world stage. That was especially true after President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord. Last December, Macron held an international “One Planet” conference meant to press climate policy forward without Washington’s involvement. He also offered tens of millions of dollars in grants to 13 American climate scientists, luring them to France to conduct basic research in a program he dubbed “Make Our Planet Great Again.” He spoke of the environment when he addressed Congress in April, saying, “Let us face it: There is no Planet B.”
This week, President Trump couldn’t resist tweeting his delight after the French government rolled back the fuel-tax rise. “I am glad that my friend @EmmanuelMacron and the protestors in Paris have agreed with the conclusion I reached two years ago,” he wrote. “The Paris Agreement is fatally flawed because it raises the price of energy for responsible countries while whitewashing some of the worst polluters.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which has generally been in favor of Macron’s business-friendly policies, this week sided with the “yellow vests,” a movement that takes its name from the roadside safety vests that motorists are required to own, and bashed Macron’s carbon tax, saying it would cost too much.
But they may be seeing only what they want to see in the protests. The fact is, the yellow-vest demonstrations have never been against Macron’s climate-change policies in general; they have been against the fuel tax in particular, which they see as unfairly targeting lower-income households. “This is not the yellow vests against climate-change policies. It’s the yellow vests against the cost of living, the way politics are done, and how decision makers are doing policy,” says Pierre Cannet, the head of climate and energy at the French offices of the WWF, an environmental nonprofit organization. In other words, in a context of social unrest and economic instability, the Macron government didn’t sell its policy well enough to its citizens.
The policy wasn’t even a proper carbon tax: It was a plan to increase France’s version of the gas tax. Before the effort was suspended this week, France was set to increase the diesel tax by 6.5 Euro cents per liter and the gasoline tax by 3.9 cents per liter. (That’s a hike of 28 cents per gallon and 17 cents per gallon, respectively.) France had already increased its gas and diesel taxes by several cents this year, and the government paid little attention to explaining where these funds were going. That the shift came after years in which France, and Europe, had encouraged the use of diesel fuel as being better for the environment only served to infuriate voters further.
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