Escalating Riots with Hidden Populist Agenda
Demonstrators wearing yellow vests, one reading 'Macron give the money backs to people' march Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018 in Marseille, southern France. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

The populist protests roiling France remind us of a similar anti-tax revolt that occurred in Paris nearly 65 years ago.

In January 1955, tens of thousands of French men and women gathered at the Porte de Versailles in Paris to express their disgust for the elites who had burdened their lives with crushing taxes. They had come to hear the populist icon Pierre Poujade, a bookstore owner from the rural Lot valley and the leader of a movement that tried to topple the government of Pierre Mendès-France.

Today, the French government is again facing an existential threat over an unpopular tax, but this time by the “gilets jaunes,” or yellow vests. And even though President Emmanuel Macron has since nixed his government’s plan, the demonstrations show no sign of abating.

On the other hand, President Trump is using the Paris protests to push his anti-Paris Agreement agenda.

The president even claimed protesters were chanting ‘We Want Trump’ and blamed the Paris Climate Agreement for the escalating riots which have blighted the French capital for the past three weeks. Trump, who in the past has called climate change a “hoax”, believes the discontent is down to people being unhappy with the Paris Agreement, which is aimed at speeding up actions to lower carbon emission.

But neither Associated Press journalists covering protests in the city nor any French television networks have shown evidence that supporters were chanting any slogans in support of Trump. The protests that began as a revolt against a gas tax increase have turned increasingly violent and France imposed exceptional security measures Saturday to prevent a repeat of rioting a week ago.

The Paris Agreement is not “fatally flawed” like President Trump claims. He is only taking advantage of the situation to voice his long distrust of the consensus by nearly all the world’s respected climate scientists on the link between human activity and rising temperatures, as well as other damaging climate change phenomena.

This week’s Poland summit is billed as the most important UN conference since the Paris deal three years ago. The talks are taking place in Katowice, the capital of the Silesian mining district. The aim of the COP24 summit is to make an end-of-year deadline for agreeing a rule book on how to enforce global action to limit further warming of the planet.

But besides those efforts, President Trump attacks Paris climate agreement and uses France’s anti-government protests as a steppingstone—another misstep in a failing foreign policy agenda.

The “gilets jaunes” movement started in November as a response to a fuel tax hike meant as an environmental measure.

Cars, trucks, and tractors play a critical role in the lives of rural and suburban French people, and the insensitivity of the government to this reality sparked the anger of these “non-metropolitan” citizens. They have long felt marginalized by city-dwelling French elites, who would barely be affected by the rising fuel prices.

The yellow vest itself perfectly embodies the resulting sense of grievance. But the protests have evolved from a pure tax revolt into something broader, combining a wide range of political views.

A recent poll shows that about 42 percent of the protesters supported the far right candidate Marine Le Pen in the last elections. The survey also shows that 20 percent of them backed the far leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, while many others voted a blank ballot or even supported the conservative François Fillon.

Because the movement lacks a leader, its demands have included everything from reinstating a wealth tax to increasing welfare protections. Students are demanding that the government backtrack on proposed education reforms, while more radical elements want a fundamental transformation in government.

To top it all off, extremists known as “les casseurs” – literally “people who break things” – and anarchists have added violence to what were primarily peaceful protests. As a result, there have been hundreds of arrests and injuries.

Today the French economy is doing reasonably well, with its annual growth rate improving since 2012 and currently close to 2 percent. For a president who has called himself a ‘Nationalist’, the logic that applies here will be to let France resolve their issues on how to resolve the rising cost of living that makes it difficult for members of the lower middle class to make ends meet.

The “gilets jaunes” of today are responding to economic challenges that are very different from the ones of the past; most are the uneven gains of globalization and not the Paris Accord towards climate change.

Or maybe history will turn around to teach the US a lesson too. After all, President Donald Trump has told members he would lead on promoting a 25-cent gas tax hike that could help pay for his $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan.

Escalating Riots with Hidden Populist Agenda