The fuel of the yellow vests

For more than a year, every day on the traffic circles and almost every Saturday in the streets, yellow vests gathered to cry out their desire for social justice. Under the vests, men and women with heterogeneous profiles, inflamed by the spark of a carbon tax denounced as unequal.

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On November 17, 2018, to everyone's amazement, Act 1 of a social conflict that would number 65 broke out, destabilizing power for many months (Le Monde 17/11/2018). In the streets and on traffic circles thousands of demonstrators dressed in yellow vests shouted their anger at the announcement of the carbon tax, as evidenced by the slogans brandished in the demonstrations: "Stop the taxes"; "La goutte d'essence qui fait déborder le vase"; "Arrêtez de nous pomper"; "Jo le taxé"...

Based on the "polluter pays" principle, the carbon tax aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions is seen by a significant proportion of the population as an unfair tax, in a context where the rising cost of living is already weighing on the middle and working classes. "Movements linked to the issue of energy always question models of society," explains Emmanuelle Reungoat, a political science researcher at the Centre d'études politiques et sociales(Cepel)*. The Yellow Vests initially mobilize around the fuel issue, but within a few weeks the movement will denounce tax injustice, social inequalities and then institutions, because energy issues affect mobility, purchasing power and political and social organization."

Mobility challenges

The spontaneity of this revolt took observers by surprise, "it was a movement that was difficult to read, which corresponded neither to the public nor to the usual modes of protest" remembers the researcher, who then took part in the urgent drafting of a questionnaire that would serve as the basis for a major national study, the only one carried out in situ on the yellow vests. Despite a very high degree of heterogeneity - "talking about the yellow vests is almost an abuse of language", Emmanuelle Reungoat points out - it is possible to put forward a few elements: populations often from certain fractions of working and middle class backgrounds, often peri-urban, living in small towns or rural communes, offering heterogeneous and sometimes antagonistic electoral preferences, rather close to the most polarized positions on the political spectrum, and quite distant from trade unions and political parties, hence an assumed mistrust of the latter.

Certain professions, such as care workers, are also over-represented: home helps, care assistants, nurses who have seen public service deteriorate... "People who work a lot with their car, and whose travel is not taken into account in their salary, but weighs heavily on their wallet". People who work a lot with their car, and whose travel costs are not taken into account in their salary, but weigh heavily on their wallet". The least protected statuses of the salaried workforce - temps and fixed-term contracts - and blue-collar and white-collar workers in general are also over-represented in the mobilization. So they gather at these familiar and accessible roundabouts, at the crossroads of major roads, to call attention to the mobility they feel is under threat. "The carbon tax was seen as an obstacle to their mobility, so they blocked everyone's mobility. In all major strike movements, mobility and energy supplies are blocked", recalls the researcher.

End of the world or end of the month

Another singularity of the movement is that many first-time protesters, mobilized via social networks, are expressing their anger for the first time in the streets and at general assemblies. They are becoming politicized, discussing issues and speaking out about their living conditions. "For many of them, it's the first time they've inscribed a life lived on the basis of failure and guilt in collective trajectories and in a system that produces inequality. We move from shame to injustice," sums up Emmanuelle Reungoat.

Awareness of a class allegiance that goes beyond the social question will shape the production of a "classist" discourse among some of the yellow vests on environmental and energy issues, by denouncing "a policy that penalizes the small by taxing gasoline rather than kerosene. There is an emerging we, but it's the we of the small against the big who pollute far more, the big, the political elites who don't take responsibility for climate change." While it has been established that the environmental footprint of the most affluent classes is greater than that of the working classes, the researcher also sees this as a challenge to public policies that are more often than not modelled on the practices of the urban middle classes: "cycling is all very well, but you still have to be able to buy an electric bike, be close enough to work, have suitable lanes...".

Diesel-powered rednecks"?

A discourse often suspected in the media of masking at best a lack of interest in the ecological question, at worst a climatoskepticism, all fed by the common idea that the working classes are not ecologists. Emmanuelle Reungoat and her CEPEL colleagues, Jean-Yves Dormagen and Laura Michel, set out to explore this idea by launching a study into the relationship between the yellow vests and ecology in Occitania. " We had to see if, as we'd heard a lot, we were dealing with climate sceptics or rednecks who drive diesel", says the researcher with amusement. Unsurprisingly, it's first and foremost the great heterogeneity of the group that emerges from this study, with sharply divided views on ecology and many other themes. Nevertheless, 88% of the Yellow Vests surveyed recognized the reality of climate change, and 75% said they were aware of the impact of human activities on the climate - figures on a par with the rest of the French population surveyed. Similarly, their carbon footprint, sometimes constrained by their standard of living, remains limited.

Without necessarily calling themselves ecologists, many of them have a vegetable garden, a compost heap, a sensitivity to nature... In reading the study, we learn above all that the Yellow Vests are ultimately neither more nor less ecologists than the rest of the population, "Even if we find individuals with more assertive positions, with more pro and anti," confirms Emmanuelle Reungoat before concluding: the management of resources, whether water or energy, will continue to mobilize a lot of people, raising the question of conflicts, divergent interests and the obligation for a democracy to learn how to manage these disagreements. And there's progress to be made, to put it mildly".


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