On Macron, les gilets jaunes and neoliberalism

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands and pose for a picture in a meeting on May 29, 2017. (Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands and pose for a picture in a meeting on May 29, 2017. (Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)

France’s workers are flirting with révolution again. And who can blame them? The protestors who have flooded streets across the country over the past month, popularly known as les gilets jaunes, are a natural response to President Emmanuel Macron’s austere economic program. The now-delayed fuel tax, which would have placed the burden of environmental progress on the already struggling working class, was the last straw.

As one protestor put it, “[Macron] can focus on the end of the world, while we’re worrying about the end of the month.” He’s right. The fuel tax is a deeply misguided policy, which ignores the structural problems that lead to fossil fuel dependence. Unfortunately, Macron’s ideology isn’t unique. Yes, the tax is particularly dumb, but it’s emblematic of a decades-long western trend towards neoliberalism which has poisoned the climate change discourse.

Neoliberalism is a slippery term which means different things to different people, but at its core is an economic philosophy of free markets, individualism and privatization. In practice, neoliberalism favors the wealthy over the working class, the entrenched powers over social mobility and the individual over the collective good. It takes the training wheels off of global capitalism through deregulation and tax cuts, giving corporate powers free reign to raze the environment in the name of their bottom line. It chips away at the power of unions, collective action and the idea of social welfare, preferring to let a rigged market decide who prospers.

Neoliberalism doesn’t believe in systemic inequality. Instead, it tells those stuck in generational poverty that if only they worked harder and acted smarter, they would be rewarded by the free market’s unbiased invisible hand. The neoliberal ethos tells us climate change is a result of our personal habits, of our commute to work, of our diet, of our heating bill, while a handful of companies responsible for the vast majority of emissions get tax cuts and subsidies. Since its mainstream introduction by Thatcher and Reagan, neoliberal ideals have led to worsening wealth inequality, stagnant wages and a dwindling middle class.

It is this thinking that informs policies like Macron’s fuel tax.

The incentive-based logic behind the tax, that a high fuel price will lead people to switch to more efficient means of transportation, is faulty. Fossil fuel dependence is more than a personal choice, despite what the free-market enthusiasts would like you to believe. A working woman or man from France or the United States or Nigeria or Vietnam can’t respond to the brute force of a fuel tax if there’s no feasible alternative for them to turn to. Fossil fuel addiction exists on a structural level, not an individual one.

So how else can we combat climate change?

First off, we need to stop thinking of fossil-fuel dependency as a result of bad consumer behavior. Rather, we need to attack the problem at its roots, and change the circumstances which lead to dependence. We need to invest in green public transit, clean energy research, green power mini grids and modernized infrastructure. We need to cut down on urban sprawl, protect green spaces and fund agricultural innovation. We need to commit to the empowerment of women, which is proven to have positive ripple effects for the environment.

And we have to view these policies as an investment in our future. After all, the long-term benefits to public health, quality of life, and economic equality far outweigh the costs. While Macron’s tax hurts the average French worker, a proactive, investment-heavy plan would revitalize France’s lagging economy and drastically reduce unemployment, while doing far more to cut emissions.

Still, well-designed carbon taxes can be effective, but they must redistribute the revenue back to low-income households or be used to invest in green energy and sustainable infrastructure. Macron’s tax does both of these inadequately.

In fact, any policy grounded in individualist, free-market philosophy will fail to adequately address climate change. Overconsumption and environmental devastation are features of unfettered capitalism, not bugs. The toxic influence of neoliberal thinking can’t be allowed to further contaminate climate policy.

Unfortunately, Macron’s blunder is reverberating far beyond France’s borders.

Right-wing pundits and politicians are wielding the righteous anger of les gilets jaunes as a cudgel against any future climate action. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board called it “The Global Carbon Tax Revolt,” and postulated, “voters don’t believe that climate change justifies policies that would raise their cost of living and hurt the economy.”

In a New York Times op-ed, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming argued the French protests were proof the world needed to move away from climate change regulation.

Raheem Kassam of the Daily Caller said the protesters are “…just trying to stop job-killing environmentalist policies.”

And of course, Ben Shapiro of the Daily Wire wants to ask leftists if “…they truly believe that economic growth and environmental overreach are compatible.”

By attempting to implement a surface level solution to a deeply ingrained problem, Macron handed the Right a talking point on a silver platter. His botched tax has likely set substantive climate action back years. At the same time, it has provided much needed clarity. There is only one path forward: governments must intervene to ensure affordable, ecologically friendly alternatives. Placing the burden of environmental healing on the working class isn’t just unfair; it’s impractical. Vive les gilets jaunes!


Harry Zehner is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at harry.zehner@uconn.edu.