After more than a month of furious, antigovernment demonstrations across France, it is easy to forget that a gasoline tax set all this off.
A few cents per liter at the pump. A pebble in the sea of the French economy. A step to address climate change, according to President Emmanuel Macron.
Of course, that’s not how millions of workers who depend on their cars saw it.
Mobility is the story of globalization and its inequities. Mobility means more than trains, planes and automobiles, after all. It also includes social and economic mobility — being too poor to afford a car, being rich enough to transfer money out of the country. These are all inextricably linked. Weeks of protests by the Yellow Vests have made that clear.
Many of these protesters, predominantly white working poor and middle class people who scrape by on their paychecks and pensions, live in what author Christophe Guilluy has called “peripheral France.” The term is meant to imply both a state of being and the thousands of small, struggling cities, towns and rural districts beyond the inner-ring suburbs of places like Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon or Lille.
“As small businesses have been dying in these smaller cities and towns, people find themselves forced to seek jobs elsewhere and to shop even for basic goods in malls,” said Alexis Spire, a French sociologist. “They need cars to survive, because regional trains and buses have declined or no longer serve them. Once you begin to unpack the Yellow Vest phenomenon, the uprising is a lot about mobility.”
Experts have been drawing parallels between the Yellow Vests and the social rifts exposed by Donald Trump’s election in the United States and Britain’s plan to leave the European Union. But there are also larger trends at work in France, involving the evolution of cities, the effect of cars, and the geography of race and class — trends rooted in the postwar years.
As a handful of big cities thrived with globalization, France’s regional governments, saddled with more financial burdens, became caught in a vicious cycle. Capital disappeared along with factories and jobs. Revenues shrank, debts mounted, and infrastructure declined.
Among the hardest-hit services were the regional railways, run by French rail company SNCF, which overwhelmingly invested in high-speed trains that served the big, prospering cities and is now $56 billion in debt. With service atrophying, people need their cars.
The gasoline tax “exposed a profound cultural fracture,” said Olivier Galland, a director at the National Center for Scientific Research.