France is embroiled in violent protests sprouting organically across the country in opposition to a gas tax increase. Unlike previous French protest movements, participants were not led by institutional forces but by regular citizens who began by mobilizing online.
These protests could be mistaken as a reaction in opposition to climate change policies. This is incorrect. Polls show French voters worry about climate change more than their neighbours.
These protests are just a small part of an anti-elite movement, what some call populism, sweeping across the globe, inspired almost entirely from politicians ignorance of problems faced by the working class. We must learn from Macron’s mistakes if we are to beat back the far-right and maintain support for combating climate change.
First, people feel powerless. Corporations, elites and politicians do not reflect their will, nor are people able to affect change within these groups. Nothing exemplifies this more than populist rightwing parties sweeping aside traditional political elites. From Germany to Brazil and Italy, populist anti-elite rhetoric is built on returning power “to the people”. And it’s working, even if the far-right leaders have no intention of actually following through with their promises.
Centre-left politicians like former socialist French President François Hollande immediately break their promises once forming government. Macron promised to govern from the centre but has increasingly governed from the right. If centrist and centre-left politicians continue to betray voters, why should we trust them? Voting as a means for regular citizens to exert power is meaningless if promises are not kept. No wonder so many voters opt not to participate.
Powerlessness manifests itself primarily in materialist interests. For too long, elites in France and around the world have ignored poor and middle-class economic concerns. While GDP and economic growth has risen, the benefits accrue almost entirely to the rich. French wages, like the rest of the world, have remained stagnant. Enacting pro-business policies will do nothing to alleviate the wage problem. Trickle-down economics is a complete failure and workers want something better.
Macron’s decision to increase gas prices by as much as 23% reinforces perceptions that politicians do not care about average citizens. Rural workers bear the brunt of this increase since many don’t have alternative transportation options. In 2016 the median French income was $1,930. Without any attempt to alleviate higher costs through policies such as dividend payouts, those who can least afford tax bear the costs.
Macron’s problems aren’t just a symptom of the failure of centrism. Centre-left parties throughout Europe are declining at a rapid rate, arguably for the exact same reasons outlined above. So what, if anything, can we learn from this?
First, when gaining power, politicians need to remain true to their values and promises. Policies designed to favour the elites should not be mistaken or substituted for worker’s interests. There’s a reason politicians like Bernie Sanders are loved – he has remained true and consistent to his values and policies even when they were unpopular.
Second, combating big issues like climate change must take into account people’s material interests. It’s important to shift behaviour, but it cannot come at the expense of paycheques or a decline in people’s living conditions. With wages so low, any cost increase will greatly impact the poor and middle class. A consumption tax, like a tax on pollution, must be offset.
Thirdly, progressives need to name and shame the real enemy. Centrist platitudes about “polarization” or “division” as the real enemy are meaningless. Trickle-down economics is a failure that enriches the powerful and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so. Far-right parties in France, Poland, Italy have embraced a larger welfare state and political commentators Tucker Carlson are turning their anger against corporations and political elites. Identifying the true source of voters problems works, even if their true intentions are to enrich themselves and their friends.
Macron’s response to fighting climate change, and the failure of Europe’s left more broadly, is a lesson and a warning. We can either learn from it or watch the far-right continue to win around the world.