Spectre of ‘gilet jaunes’ backlash haunts EU climate plans

Europe Letter: EU proposes compensation subsidies to quell fears of revolt

Protesters wearing yellow vests wave flares and French flags near the Arc de Triomphe during a demonstration over high fuel prices on the Champs Elysee, Paris, in December 2018. Photograph: Yoan Valat/EPA

Ghosts in yellow safety vests haunted the launch of the EU plans to slash carbon dioxide emissions and counter disastrous levels of climate change this week.

Fear of a populist backlash akin to France’s yellow vest or “gilet jaunes” movement has influenced how the “Fit for 55” package was designed and received.

"What happens if one of the results of all of these measures is that normal people will have to pay more for the fuel for their cars?" asked an Italian journalist, one of several to raise the protest movement in a question. "That could be a real problem in the public opinion, and a colleague has already mentioned the gilet jaunes in France. "

The EU's climate chief Frans Timmermans acknowledged the movement had been discussed. "I know the anxieties surrounding the experience of the yellow vests, I know that," he said in response. "There is a lot of talk about that."


The gilet jaunes movement was triggered by changes for car owners in France. An increase in the price of diesel fuel, combined with a reduction in the speed limit on country roads, became the 2018 catalyst for a sprawling protest movement that exerted its rage in weekly demonstrations that regularly turned violent, and were only quelled by the outbreak of the pandemic last year.

The yellow vest was chosen as a symbol because French motorists are required to have the safety jacket for emergencies, and stuck because it was resonant of working-class jobs. The aim of the movement has long since extended to encompass almost any issue of anti-establishment discontent from left or right, whether traffic enforcement, immigration or tax equity.

Economic injustice

But the symbol retains its power. On the sidelines of Bastille Day celebrations in Paris on Wednesday the vests were out again, this time opposing mandatory vaccination for health workers, and exclusion of the unvaccinated from restaurants and cinemas.

Awareness of the car-related origin of the protests, and of the potency of the more broadly-felt sense of economic injustice the movement tapped into, shaped the legislation proposed in Brussels this week.

Fit for 55 outlines the concrete policies through which the EU can meet its legal commitment to cut carbon emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, and ultimately reach carbon neutrality by 2050. The wide-ranging economic overhaul includes a phase-out of the sale of cars that use fossil fuels in favour of electric vehicles.

The European Commission insists that renewable energy will ultimately be cheaper and that the transition will create two million jobs, but acknowledges that the transition may raise some costs for consumers along the way.

Higher environmental standards for industry may feed into increased prices. An overhaul of fuel taxes to ensure the cleanest fuels carry the lowest levies will likely mean a few cents more per litre for those buying diesel or petrol at the pump.

In acknowledgment of this, part of the plan is to raise revenues by taxing imports that are made with lower environmental standards elsewhere in the world, and use part of the money to create a €72 billion “social climate fund” that would be given to member states to compensate those affected by the change.

Political upheavals

The intense lobbying around the package – which is only ramping up as it moves to the negotiation phase with the European Parliament and national governments – reflects the risk that the cash may not go to those most in need, but to those most effective in demanding it.

Some of the great political upheavals of our time have not come from those objectively worst off, but from those who feel they are slipping from a position of relative privilege. The change in diesel prices that triggered the yellow vest movement happened not because the fuel was singled out for a tax hike, but because of a decision to phase out its generous subsidies, the legacy of past French industrial policy. Similarly, many of the EU proposals involve the removal of current tax breaks for fossil fuels.

The gilet jaunes were highly effective at presenting car ownership costs as an “everyman” issue of economic justice. But as the European Commission notes in its social climate fund policy, “the lowest income households do not have access to a private vehicle”.

And dirty air also has a cost. Aside from its damage to the Earth’s ability to sustain human life, it causes an estimated 400,000 premature deaths in the EU each year.

The greatest costs of all are being charged to younger generations, some unable to yet advocate for themselves, as the devastation of climate change and difficulty of halting it increases with every year that action is not taken.