A Tale of Two Cities

A Photo from Climate Express, one of the non-profits that organized the “Claim the Climate” rally in Brussels on December 2, 2018

Paris’ “Yellow Shirts” — rioters in reflective vests representing drivers and anyone with a livelihood tied to roads — came out in force the first weekend in December, 2018. They defaced the Arc de Triomphe with anti-government graffiti, burned cars, and smashed shop windows. Their goal: Protest an end to diesel subsidies and an increase in already meaningful fuel taxes that contribute to gas prices exceeding $7 per gallon.

Meanwhile, a completely different “Claim the Climate” rally in Brussels peacefully biked, publicly commuted, and jubilantly walked and danced their way toward the European headquarters to demand more regulation to counteract climate change.

Why totally different protests and goals in two French-speaking capitals on the very same weekend?

The Glorious Republic

France often seems to totter beneath the weight of its Republican system, with everyone disappointed in a supposedly strong Presidency.  The President controls nuclear weapons but can’t lead people to like their working days. Maybe, what France needs is less leadership from the top, not more. A perception of many French is that a few giant companies and egotistical government functionaries in Paris represent the fat cats, while resentful people in the provinces watch their fixed retirement benefits and salaries get nicked by inflation and taxes. People are more likely to fantasize about retirement than about entrepreneurial schemes, locally or on an individual level, to undercut giant corporatist institutions. Even true entrepreneurs (veterinarians, restaurant owners, fashion shopkeepers) might loath rioting protesters, but with no love for the state actors and pretty politicians who are arresting anguished workers. So further taxes to limit consumption might be well-meaning, but they’re interpreted like a dangerous intrusion by pompous Parisians.  

Basically, protesters unrealistically hope to turn back the clock, but they also appear to have a point: Any tax on consumption is regressive without provisions to offset the burden for working-class people. To many blue collar workers, the taxes just feel like a centralized money grab. And gas taxes were not even passed with any focus on paying for environmental initiatives.

Meanwhile, back in Brussels, more positivist goals

In Brussels, the pro-environmental protests did not favor any new taxes, although no solution to counter manmade climate change will be free.  Instead, the rally focused on goals:

Force politicians to uphold their own laws as signatories to the Paris accords.

– Impose restrictions not on ordinary people directly but on massive companies, commercial factory and building owners, and real estate developers.

Improve the health of people and animals by convincing citizens to use bicycles and public transport and move away from consumerism.  Here, lead by the strength of your example.

A collection of many of the slogans and aphorisms of marchers, with quality photos, can be found here.  

Belgian Federalism

While the French President surveyed the violence and defacement of the Arc de Triomphe, more obscure officials in Belgium’s weak federal coalition endorsed the protests.  Many urban officials governing Brussels were part of a growing environmental movement that had just passed into local law a declaration that animals are “sentient beings,” worthy of rights, in a vote that might have far reaching effects on farming and livestock management throughout the country.  Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel endorsed the environmental rally in Brussels, which ended with an outstanding jazz band that kept people dancing under the EU buildings. And the rally may have sped up environmental negotiations at the COP24 conference and the EU parliament, where Belgium’s largest (Flemish) party chose to represent Belgium instead of putting up a Prime Minister.

Jubilant Denouement to Brussels Protests

Policy Takeaway

What’s the takeaway?   It’s unrealistic to think massive changes in people’s behavior can occur without challenging people’s patterns of consumption, but the message might be best delivered by more grassroots, local messengers.  Regulations promoting a greener world probably do need to focus on local and regional regulations of major institutions first, and taxation of ordinary people second.