French Protests over High Fuel Taxes Turn Violent; Government Delays Tax Rise

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Car and Driver

UPDATE 12/4/18: Stating that "no tax is worth threatening the unity of the nation," French prime minister Édouard Philippe announced today that the rise in fuel taxes will be delayed for six months.

UPDATE 12/3/18: The anger of fuel-tax protesters continues to build across France over diesel taxes, up this year by 23 percent to an average $1.71 per liter. The protesters, calling themselves Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) after the reflective clothing they wear, have now turned violent. For a third straight weekend, massive demonstrations called for reductions in the tax, and, increasingly, for the resignation of President Emmanuel Macron. France 24 reported that some 75,000 demonstrators were out across France this weekend, nearly 200 fires were set, and 378 arrests were made in Paris alone, as protesters scrawled graffiti on the Arc de Triomphe and broke store windows along the Champs-Elysées boulevard. More than 130 people were injured over the weekend, and the French government is now considering declaring a state of emergency. The president has said he will try to "slow the rate of increase" in fuel taxes, depending on the international fuel-price situation, France 24 reported today.

France's nerves are in a highly strung state over the increasingly high cost of driving a car in the country. On Saturday, November 17, about 283,000 motorists symbolically wearing reflective vests mobilized across the country to protest a series of unpopular measures ranging from the ever-increasing price of fuel to the lowering of speed limits on country roads. Massive protests and inescapable strikes are frequent in France, but this movement stands out as a moment of national collaboration that transcends partisan lines and social classes. Born on Facebook, it is not organized by a political party or by a trade union, and there is no identifiable leader to represent it.

Whether they're enthusiasts or commuters, motorists are showing their support for the movement by placing a reflective vest on their car's dashboard. Some activists marched in the streets of major cities over the weekend, while the more pugnacious motorists continue for a third day today to block roads, grocery stores, gas stations, and fuel-storage facilities. The blockades led to altercations between police forces and angry mobs, and a 63-year-old protester blocking a road in the Savoy region was struck and killed by a car trying to force its way through the barrier. The driver, who is in police custody, explained she panicked while taking her daughter to the hospital. About 400 protesters were injured in similar incidents, including 14 who were hospitalized in critical condition, and law enforcement officials made about 50 arrests. The demonstrations nonetheless continued across France on Monday, November 19, and they have spread to neighboring Belgium.

A 2018 Fuel-Tax Increase Lit This Fuse

The rising price of fuel is, to use a French proverb, the droplet that caused the glass to overflow. In early 2018, the government announced it would raise taxes on gasoline and diesel to make both fuels more expensive and, in turn, financially pressure motorists into driving green (or, at the very least, driving less) to curb air pollution. As it stands, France has one of the highest tax rates on fuel among the countries in the European Union. About 60 percent of the cost of a liter of either fuel goes straight to the public treasury. Another increase is planned for 2019.

The price of diesel has increased more than the price of gasoline; it has gone up by around 23 percent in 12 months as France joins other nations in waging war on the fuel. Motorists took this relatively sudden measure as a punch in the gut. For decades, various administrations went to remarkable lengths to put drivers behind the wheel of diesel-powered cars, and lawmakers encouraged companies like Renault and Peugeot to develop diesel technology. The result is that, as of January 2017, 61.6 percent of the cars registered in France run on diesel, though that number is gradually shrinking as the percentage of new gasoline-powered cars increases. The protesters want to avoid the fate that has befallen motorists in Germany, where the government found itself trapped in a judicial straightjacket and resignedly ceded to court-ordered bans on diesels in many major cities.

Motorists feel the stick without seeing the carrot, protesters argue. The concept of raising taxes to eradicate an ignominious habit isn't new; the French government has also applied it, less controversially, to cigarettes. The cost of a pack of Camels has nearly doubled in the past decade, and the number of smokers has fallen. The difference is that, with enough willpower, a smoker can quit; a driver can't. Protesters insist they need a car to get to work, to take their kids to school, to go buy groceries, or to go on vacation. These arguments echo particularly loudly in the rural areas that make up a significant part of the country. The assertion that the national government makes rules to gladden wealthy Parisians and sees common folks as merely a money well it can tap into as needed has surfaced repeatedly during the protests.

The rising cost of diesel is the tip of the iceberg. The list of grievances hammered onto the president's door also notes the recent lowering of speed limits across the country's vast network of back roads-another measure taken, officially, in the name of air pollution-along with the proliferation of speed cameras and the strengthening of the biennial safety and emissions inspections, which have consequently become more expensive. And, in the Paris region, some protesters still haven't swallowed an elitist car ban that effectively prevents the poorest motorists-those who can't afford to buy a late-model car-from driving within the city limits.

The last time the government took a step to make driving more affordable was in 2000, when it began eliminating an annual registration tax called the vignette. It has been an uphill battle since, and working-class motorists have reached the end of their tether. They're not the type to do little but speak a great deal, either.

Members of the French government have shown an entrenched resistance to change. President Emmanuel Macron turned a Nelsonian eye to the protests and flew to Germany to participate in a commemorative ceremony with chancellor Angela Merkel. Prime minister Edouard Philippe acknowledged the anger felt across the country, but he stressed that increasing the cost of fuel is in France's best interest and made it clear that backpedaling isn't an option. What is an option, according to minister of the interior Christophe Castaner, is sending the army to quell the most recalcitrant part of the rebellion.

Motorists are standing their ground, too, and additional protests are planned across France in the coming days, leaving the nation deadlocked in an arm-wrestling contest. In 2013, a similarly-crippling movement in Brittany coerced lawmakers into scrapping a planned tax on semi-trucks. The government spent a not insignificant amount of money to install license-plate scanners on highway overpasses but ultimately nixed the law. It estimates the embarrassing ordeal cost about $1 billion.

The scanners are offline, but they're still perched over many French highways. For yellow-vest-wearing motorists, they serve as a reminder that it's never too late to force lawmakers to row back.

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