The United States is often criticized for its citizens’ “love affair with the automobile.” It was roundly criticized when its president withdrew the US from the highly vaunted Paris Climate Accords.
Europeans are often perceived to look on the actions of Americans complaining over the high price of gasoline as somehow immoral. However, Americans do not usually go destroying things and setting fires in the streets over high fuel prices. In fact, no one does that.
In France, this is precisely what has been happening over the last week to ten days, and in a stunning bit of silence, the news media has simply not covered this matter honestly. In the United States and in Europe, the story was “French people riot over high fuel prices.” However, that only tells part of the story.
The Washington Examiner finally began running accurate reports as recently as November 26 (emphasis added):
In France all hell is breaking loose. Parisians, who live in the city of the climate accords that were supposed to save us all, are rioting. More than a quarter million protesters have taken to the streets to revolt against a rising fuel tax amid France’s already exorbitant taxes.
Nearly half of France’s gross domestic product is already eaten up by taxation. You might think that that frog has already been boiled, yet this environmentally inspired carbon tax proves otherwise. It is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Police deployed over 5,000 tear gas grenades and water cannons against the protesters, who donned yellow jackets for the second weekend in a row.
As a recently released report from the U.S. government demonstrates, climate change does not only have the capacity to destroy the planet in the long term but also to wreck our economy. It’s a pressing and significant issue that both the country and the world will have to grapple with before it becomes catastrophic.
But the scenes of France on fire are good reminders that attempts to drive down energy use or drive up its cost tend to suffer from a lack of consent from the governed.
And it is very interesting that the cultured, calm French are reacting to this tax in total outrage. Maybe a closer look at the exact nature of the fuel tax is needed. To that end, the BBC reported this in a piece released a scant 43 minutes before this article was filed (with emphasis):
The price of diesel, the most commonly used fuel in French cars, has risen by around 23% over the past 12 months to an average of €1.51 (£1.32; $1.71) per litre, its highest point since the early 2000s.
World oil prices did rise before falling back again, but the Macron government raised its hydrocarbon tax this year by 7.6 cents per litre on diesel and 3.9 cents on petrol.
Mr Macron has blamed world oil prices for three-quarters of the price rise but said more tax on fossil fuels was needed to fund renewable energy investments.
The decision to impose a further increase of 6.5 cents on diesel and 2.9 cents on petrol on 1 January 2019 was seen as the final straw for the protesters.
To put these prices in perspective, €1.51 per litre is US$ 5.70 per gallon, more than twice the US price level of $2.45 for the same fuel in Colorado as of December 3, 2018. But this wasn’t all. In President Emmanuel Macron’s view, this price is still way too low, and the Paris Climate Accords were supposed to remedy this by raising the price for fuel to a level so high that people would be forced to not use it.
The same strategy was a hope early in the Obama administration, as expressed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu in September 2008:
President Barack Obama’s Energy secretary unwittingly created a durable GOP talking point in September 2008 when he talked to The Wall Street Journal about the benefits of having gasoline prices rise over 15 years to encourage energy efficiency.
“Somehow,” Chu said, “we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.”
Chu, a Nobel-winning physicist and director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was not yet a member of the not-yet-in-existence Obama administration. But Republican politicians and conservative pundits have seized on his words as evidence that the White House is deliberately driving gasoline prices higher — ensuring that Chu’s remarks are the energy policy sound bite that will not die.
Newt Gingrich was the latest to jump on the bandwagon, telling CBS’s “This Morning” on Tuesday that Obama’s “outrageously anti-American” energy policy is aimed at increasing the price at the pump.
“Chu, his Energy secretary, said in 2008 he wanted gasoline prices to get to the European level, which is $9 or $10 a gallon,” Gingrich said.
A column Tuesday on Andrew Breitbart’s website Big Government also dredged up the 2008 quote, sardonically observing that “Mr. Chu’s energy plans appear to be working.”
In the United States, fuel prices peaked in 2008 right before the financial crisis began, with levels near US$4.20 per gallon of regular unleaded gasoline. A second peak during President Obama’s term made it to similar levels, but was abruptly cut off by the development of the production of oil from “depleted” oil wells in the US through the use of hydraulic fracking that sent the prices below $3.00 ever since 2014.
So with France’s prices already much higher than this and only a promise of further increases to appease the climate change gods (the UN most likely, for the purposes of “redistribution of wealth”, meaning we will never see that money again), the proverbial straw broke the backs of the French, who have already suffered through events like 100% taxation rates and other distinctly socialist policies under recent leadership. The BBC piece went on to report the outcome of this policy thus far:
France’s PM has announced a six-month suspension of a fuel tax rise which has led to weeks of violent protests.
Edouard Philippe said that people’s anger must be heard, and the measures would not be applied until there had been proper debate with those affected.
The protests have hit major French cities, causing considerable damage for the past three weekends.
The “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) protests have now grown to reflect more widespread anger at the government.
Three people have died since the unrest began and the resulting violence and vandalism – notably when statues were smashed at the Arc de Triomphe last Saturday – have been widely condemned.
“Yellow vests” are so called because they have taken to the streets wearing the high-visibility yellow clothing that is required to be carried in every vehicle by French law. (that in itself is very interesting and socialist sounding as well – Ed.)
The movement has grown via social media and has supporters across the political spectrum…
Mr Macron says his motivation for the increase is environmental, but protesters call him out of touch – particularly with non-city dwellers who rely on their cars.
The movement later grew to reflect a range of grievances, including the marginalisation of rural areas, high living costs, and general anger at President Macron’s economic policies.
The protests have no identifiable leadership and gained momentum via social media, encompassing a whole range of participants from the anarchist far left to the nationalist far right, and plenty of moderates in-between.
This is interesting, because it sounds like Trumpian-style populism is breaking out. Again. We continue with the BBC:
Nearly 300,000 people took part in the first countrywide demonstration. There were more than 106,000 a week later, and 136,000 people last Saturday.
The Washington Examiner gave a very good set of concluding thoughts on this matter:
The best economic argument for a carbon tax is that the market price of goods and services resulting in carbon emissions fail to include the true social and environmental costs of carbon emissions. Carbon taxes can result in significant deadweight losses, but a good politician would mostly lean on the economics of a carbon tax to sell it to the people.
Or you might argue, as French President Emmanuel Macron does, that one should prefer the taxation of fuel over the taxation of labor, even though the former is regressive and affects the poor more than the rich.
Macron’s messaging is a masterclass in how not to sell climate policy. Almost 80 percent of the French people now support the protesters, whereas only a quarter have a favorable opinion of Macron. As it turns out, there are limits to what the French will accept from their president, as there always are in a republic.
Whether a fuel tax is good or bad is still up for debate, but there’s no question that forcing it down the public’s throats while they are struggling economically is a losing strategy. Given the rapid rate at which carbon-reducing technology is advancing, a carbon tax may be more trouble than its worth.
This also shows the discernment of American president Donald Trump, who withdrew the US from this deal. When he did so, the US President had this to say:
Trump said, “In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect the United States and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord,” adding “The bottom line is that the Paris accord is very unfair at the highest level to the United States.”  He claimed that the agreement, if implemented, would cost the United States $3 trillion in lost GDP and 6.5 million jobs. He added that it would “undermine our economy, hamstring our workers,” and “effectively decapitate our coal industry”.
It appears that France is enjoying precisely these sort of problems.