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We’re with the Rebels

France's "yellow vest" protests against fuel prices weren't organized by the Left. But the fight to widen their demands is key to blocking the growth of Marine Le Pen's far right.

by Aurélie Dianara

Part 2 - Which People?

The people who are mobilizing in the gilets jaunes movement are the people of peripheral France: those who come not from large urban centers but from smaller towns and rural areas. A part of the country that is not usually seen is today rising up. To make itself visible it wears the flourescent yellow vest, a reflective garment every driver has to keep in their car. They came together, and organized, on social media — a few weeks ago groups started being created for each département (small administrative units of France) — and sometimes they held a few preparatory meetings before they took to the streets on dawn of Saturday 17.

The gilets jaunes came together to protest against the increase in fuel prices. And with good reason: this year the price of diesel has increased by 23 percent and petrol by 14 percent due to the jump in the price of a barrel of oil. In addition, the government has recently announced that diesel and petrol prices will increase further — by four and seven cents a liter respectively — presenting this as a means of financing an ecologically oriented energy transition.

This announcement has, unsurprisingly, caused great discontent among the lower and middle classes, especially those of peripheral France most affected by transport costs. For these citizens, who travel many miles every day by car, fuel prices can seriously cut into their incomes.

In terms of their demands, the gilets jaunes first of all want to get rid of this “carbon tax.” But behind the anger there is something else. As they and their supporters have repeated over the last two weeks, to justify their actions (which have stirred no little upset), the fuel price issue is something of a “straw that broke the camel’s back.

The voices heard in recent days express a clear feeling of exasperation, the sense of being the objects of the contempt of (and exclusion by) a political class which they generally reject. Many call for the government and President Emmanuel Macron to resign. They continually insist on his low support and weak electoral legitimacy: after all, in last year’s presidential contest he only scored 24 percent in the first round, and turnout in the runoff hit historic low. “Macron, resign!” is a slogan that thunders through the provinces and along the Champs Elysées.

This feeling of exasperation is the result of years of fiscal and social policies that have gradually strangled the low and middle classes, including in terms of the tax take. Immediately upon reaching office, Macron abolished the Solidarity Wealth Tax (ISF), giving €4 billion to the richest; and has strengthened the Tax Credit for Solidarity and Employment (CICE), a tax cut and exemption program transferring €41 billion a year to French companies, including multinationals. Shortly afterwards, with the 2018 budget bill, Macron established a flat tax that allowed a lowering of taxation on capital, handing another €10 billion to the richest.

At the same time, the government has increased the General Social Contribution (CSG) income tax to be paid by pensioners, while pensions themselves have ceased to be indexed to inflation (and thus to retirees’ ability to buy consumer goods). It has got rid of the subsidized contracts (which allowed large numbers to work on contracts partly financed by public bodies) and lowered by five euros a month the amount of housing contributions (APL) for the most disadvantaged.

As if that were not enough, the new “carbon tax” will weigh five times heavier on the budgets of the middle classes than on that of the upper classes. Yet the government has taken no steps to counterbalance this obviously unequal treatment — for example by giving aid to the families on the most modest budgets.

Building on policies already implemented by presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, the effect has been to produce a further massive increase in inequalities. Over the last two decades the largest fortunes in France have increased tenfold, while according to a recent study by OFCE and INSEE, French families’ average “purchasing power” has fallen by €440 a year since the 2008 crisis. In this context, it is unsurprising that a sense of injustice and humiliation has spread, as well as that of an arrogant “president of the rich.”

This has exacerbated a divide between the people and the privileged elite represented by the president, aggravated by a series of recent financial scandals enveloping recent heads of state. If governments have continued to repeat that tax breaks for the richest and big companies would stimulate investment, the figures tell us otherwise: we are still waiting for the million jobs promised by Hollande and his then-adviser Macron when CICE was launched in 2012.

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