The "Yellow Vests" are a wake-up call for French ecologists
Not one but two protests wound their way through the streets of Paris last Saturday. On one side, the climate march, with around 2000 people braving a drizzly, abnormally mild December day. On the other, the Yellow Jackets, protesting against the raising costs of living and tax hikes. Groups clad in high visibility vests marched throughout the city. Every time you turned a corner you came across another fluorescent blur of anger.
That there were two different demonstrations is not (just) a sign of how much the French love a good protest, but proof of how two movements with a common enemy - a neoliberal system which fosters inequality and destroys natural resources - have been driven apart when then should be together. The star-crossed lovers of social justice and climate justice.
A certain branch of pro-environmental discourse has long tried to convince us that the planet can be saved by green capitalism and a shift in individual behaviour. A world view in which the rich entrepreneurs are the saviours, middle class consumers are the good guys and the poor, not being able to afford organic food or a house close to a metro station, are the baddies. Macron and his (now cancelled) fuel tax are the embodiment of this kind of “ecology”. Those with lower-incomes would have borne the brunt of a measure supposedly designed to reduce emissions. Which appears even more unfair considering that the carbon footprint per head in France is significantly lower amongst the working classes than against the middle and upper classes. It’s not hard to see why one of the slogans frequently spray-painted on walls by Yellow Vest protestors is “ecology is war against the poor.”
The environmental movement in France is quick to distance themselves from Macron - rightly so because their discourse does contain a real, in-depth criticism of the neo-liberal system and social inequalities. The problem is that ecologists are not very good at appealing to working class French people. The vast majority of environmental activists in France are middle- class, educated, white and well-off. If someone from the working classes did show up to a meeting, they would be discouraged by the symbolic violence of the expensive hipster cafés where meetings often take place, or the fact that speakers tend not to acknowledge social inequalities or issues that affect the lower classes. Nor do ecologists rush to join grassroots environmental movements started by the lower classes. When a group of parents campaigned against pollution caused by a factory in Montreuil, a working class suburb of Paris, which was linked to three cases of childhood leukemia - none of the main environmental NGOs came to their aid.
The gulf between ecologists and working classes has come at a huge cost to the French environment movement, and the Yellow Vests are proof of that, because they have proven their power. Just two weeks before christmas, they managed to shut down capitalism. Well, almost. The luxury boutiques of the Champs-Elyssés, and those lining the Rue de Rivoli were closed, banks were barricaded up. A sight which would have made many an ecological activist happy, and slightly envious that they hadn’t caused it. When former environment minister Nicolas Hulot stepped down in August, he deplored a lack of public support for ecological measures - saying there was no “structured society that goes out on the street to defend biodiversity,” no “national unity on an issue that concerns the future of humanity and of our own grandchildren.” The environment doesn't have the numbers of the Gilets Jaunes - but it needs them. Especially considering the extent of the changes needed to make our lives compatible with the survival of our planet. We all need to consume radically less, and that can only be done with the support of a wide part of the population, or authoritarianism. The former certainly seems more appealing.
The message is sinking in for ecologists. At the climate march, speeches, slogans and signs all spoke of social justice as well as climate justice and almost a quarter of protestors had chosen to wear yellow vests. Some were emblazoned with messages like “no ecology without equality” or “a planet for all, and all for the planet”.
“We have a message for the Yellow Vests,” one protestor yelled into a megaphone. “We hear you. We understand you. And today we marched together.”