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France's climate change commitments trigger rising diesel prices, deadly street protests

By JAMES MCAULEY | The Washington Post | Published: November 17, 2018

PARIS — The French president is under fire again, this time over rising fuel prices.

On Saturday, some 244,000 protesters, many clad in yellow vests, not only took to the streets, but in many places literally took the streets, according to the French Interior Ministry. The ministry said a network of drivers blocked roads at some 2,000 locations across the country, generating traffic backups for miles and causing one death.

A 63-year-old protester was killed in the eastern Savoie region when a driver panicked by demonstrators accidentally accelerated into the crowd, French media reported. In other incidents nationwide, 106 people were reported injured, five seriously.

The protesters' chief complaint: the rising cost of diesel fuel. The recent price hike is a direct result of Emmanuel Macron's commitment to curbing climate change, which included higher carbon taxes for 2018, the first full year of his term. But beyond the diesel issue, many turned out Saturday to voice any number of other frustrations with the so-called "president for the rich," who is seen as increasingly removed from ordinary people's concerns.

Diesel, a fossil fuel, is known for the pollutants it emits into the air. Although it was traditionally taxed at the same rate as petrol, that is no longer the case: Taxes on diesel have risen by 6.2 percent per liter this year, as part of the government's efforts to protect clean air. The problem is that diesel remains the most common fuel in France, leading many to view recent policies as an attack on working people more than an environmental safeguard.

The stirrings of the "yellow vest" campaign behind Saturday's protest began this summer, with online petitions urging Macron to reconsider. But the loudest voice was that of Jacline Mouraud, a white-haired hypnotist and grandmother of three from Brittany who has become the star of the movement.

"I have two little words for Mr. Macron and his government," she said, in a YouTube video that has garnered millions of views. "You have persecuted drivers since the day you took office. This will continue for how long?"

On Saturday, Mouraud was asked to explain the death of the protester earlier in the day. "I deplore the death of this woman," she said, speaking to Europe 1 radio. "But who is responsible for this situation? The French government is responsible for the death of this woman."

Her view of the government is not a fringe opinion. According to a poll published Friday by the Odoxa agency for France's Le Figaro newspaper - albeit with only 1,000 respondents - as many as three in four French people agree. Whatever the actual figure, Macron's political opponents, particularly on France's political extremes, have sought to capitalize on the sentiment, using the "yellow vest" movement to cast the president as an out-of-touch elitist.

That is a common criticism of Macron, whose approval ratings have recently plummeted to as low as 26 percent. Even President Donald Trump took notice, noting Macron's low popularity in a flurry of tweets after a tense visit to Paris last weekend.

Laurent Wauquiez, the leader of France's right-wing Les Republicains, announced he would be demonstrating Saturday. "We're offered a punitive environmental policy that involves massive increases in taxes," Wauquiez said in a recent interview. "I'm tired of the fact that in this country environmental policy always comes by way of taxes."

In response, Macron has offered his "respect and consideration" to the protesters but has refused to budge. He is also far from alone in advocating higher carbon taxes.

The United Nations contends that taxing carbon dioxide emissions is an essential component of halting a steady rise in global temperatures. It was a key element of the world body's major October report predicting that the earth's atmosphere may warm by up to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit over preindustrial levels as soon as 2040, potentially triggering a global crisis decades earlier than expected.

Approximately 48,000 people die in France every year from pollution-related causes, according to France's public health watchdog.

Since his election, Macron has sought to position himself as a leading voice for action on climate change - in notable contrast to Trump. When the latter withdrew the United States from the landmark Paris climate accord of 2015, Macron invited U.S. climate scientists to continue their research in France. In English, he even played on Trump's campaign slogan: "Make Our Planet Great Again."

Despite those public interventions, however, the French president has come under fire at home for not making much progress on the climate question. The criticism has come even from within his own cabinet: Nicolas Hulot, a former television personality who served as Macron's staggeringly popular environment minister, resigned during an August radio interview that took the Elysee Palace by surprise.

As Hulot said during the interview: "Have we begun to reduce the use of pesticides? The answer is no. Have we started to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? The answer is no. Or to stop the erosion of biodiversity? No."

Still, carbon taxes have been a priority for Macron since the beginning, with France raising its carbon tax from $35 a ton in 2017 to $51 a ton in 2018. The cost is slated to keep rising, eventually reaching $98.50 a ton in 2022.

In recent weeks, the government has acknowledged the impact on the average French pocketbook. But since early 2018, consumers have been eligible for an "environmental bonus" rebate: Trade in a diesel car for a more environmentally friendly model, and get money back.

Although the government is sticking to its policies, Macron, in a rare concession, appears to recognize the blow to his image that Saturday's demonstrations represent.

As he said in a recent interview: "I have not succeeded in reconciling the French people with their leaders."

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The Washington Post's Quentin Ariès contributed to this report.
 

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