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France’s High Taxes Breed a Populist Revolt, Again

Politicians seem unable to learn from a history of grabby tax policies fueling populist anger.

Jean Baptiste Quentin/NewscomJean Baptiste Quentin/NewscomFor all of its reputation as a rule-bound society in which liberal democracy uncomfortably shares the stage with an intrusive state, France has a healthy history of grassroots revolts, too. President Emmanuel Macron probably should have remembered this before he pushed his plan to intentionally tax fuel into unaffordability.

If Macron had bothered to recall past populist eruptions against the burdensome and ravenous state, he might have avoided the street violence of recent weeks, as well as the potentially dangerous political baggage that seems to inevitably adhere to these uprisings.

The gilets jaunes—yellow vests, named after the high-visibility garments protesters donned as a symbol—were brought into the streets by the French government's environmental push as implemented through big and continuing hikes in carbon taxes. For fuel, this means a 23 percent increase in taxes just this year, hitting popular diesel especially hard, at a time when taxes already make up about 60 percent of the price.

The avowed point of the taxes, according to Macron, is not just to subsidize environmental programs, but to force people to "change habits" by making fossil fuels more expensive.

Deliberately making fuel more expensive might not be that important to the mass-transit-loving urban elites that make up the base of Macron's support, as well as that of his ruling En Marche party, but it's a punch in the gut to small-town and rural France where, as in the U.S., cars and trucks are absolutely essential to getting from place to place and making a living. It's these "sans dents" (literally "without teeth"—a term of contempt reportedly used by former Socialist president Francois Hollande to describe the common people) who flocked to the cities to protest against the tax hikes.

The protests have since turned violent and lethal, with bricks thrown, businesses and government offices torched, and tear gas deployed by police. "The protests have been so intense in the capital and other cities for two weekends in a row that tourists spoke of civil war-like conditions," Deutsche Welle reports.

The protests could have been predicted by anybody who remembers the reaction to France's fuel taxes in 2000—although the current situation is far more serious.

Delphine Goldsztejn/ZUMA Press/NewscomDelphine Goldsztejn/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Complicating matters—and making the public anger more intractable—is that the gilets jaunes seem to be truly grassroots and leaderless. Nobody really has the authority to cut deals with the government, and the few self-appointed representatives who agreed to meet with officials pulled out after threats from other protesters.

That leaves the government playing catch-up and hoping that suspending the planned fuel tax hike will be sufficient to calm the anger of people who are now adding to their tax protests a grab-bag of complaints about unrelated free-market reforms, particularly eased labor rules, in a country that desperately needs a liberalized economy.

That leaderless movement has also created an opening for existing extremist political leaders to try to step in to impose their imprint. Right-wing populist Marine Le Pen and leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon have both encouraged the protests and called for new elections to resolve the crisis—and give themselves a shot at enhanced power.

Le Pen's role is especially unsurprising, given that her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, got his political start during the Poujadist tax revolt of the 1950s. Then, as now, anger at grabby politicians evolved into a wider-ranging populist movement driven by resentment of presumptuous elites and their preferred policies. Led by Pierre Poujade, the movement began by ejecting tax collectors from shops and moved from there to anti-Americanism and protesting the loss of France's empire.

As a further warning to Macron and company, Poujade's movement won 52 seats in the National Assembly. The youngest of the tax rebels to gain a seat was Jean-Marie Le Pen, who went on to found the National Front. His daughter, Marine Le Pen, faced Macron in a runoff in the last presidential election.

By fanning the flames of the gilet jaunes tax revolt, Marine Le Pen is returning to her family's political roots and asserting her populist credentials. By dismissing the tax revolt, Macron is continuing the snotty French governing tradition of infuriating the public and creating long-term problems for the powers-that-be.

France needs the tax relief that the giles jaunes demand. The country "has the least competitive tax system in the OECD," according to the Tax Foundation's 2018 Tax Competitiveness Index, which cites high levies on pretty much everything. But the country also needs the free market reforms that Macron has promised and that the protesters have added to their list of grievances.

France's "complex and rigid labor laws are a major deterrent to employment growth," notes the Index of Economic Freedom, which ranks France at an unimpressive 71 and only "moderately free" in economic terms.

Both tax relief and loosened economic rules are possible, even if they seem improbable in state-centric modern France. Dirigisme—government direction of the economy—may be a very French concept, but laissez-faire is also a French term, even if it's one that has fallen out of favor in the country where it was coined.

The French can have both lower taxes and economic freedom—and perhaps a measure of peace. Or they can have neither, and lay the foundation for more strife to come. The choice is theirs to make.

Photo Credit: Jean Baptiste Quentin/Newscom

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Maybe Macron thought the little frogs wouldn't be able to afford the fuel they used as accelerants to turn those Citroëns into flaming effigies of French central planning.

  • MJBinAL||

    The French Elites (self appointed and self anointed, as usual) are the same ones who got the French into the EU without the popular vote that they polls said they would overwhelmingly lose. They always know best what the peasants (sans dents) need better than they do.

    Our own Elites should pay attention. When, as they seem determined to do, they run Trump out of office and so doing reverse the election, don't be surprised if people take to the streets here. And remember, when they call out the national guard to deal with it, that in this country the people HAVE guns.

    Here's hoping our "Elites" have the sense to see France and not to push it too far. I wish I had more confidence in that.

    When you think it can't happen here, our country is different, think again. When you cringe, at the French Elites calling the peasants "Sans Dents", or those without teeth, remember our own calling ours "deplorables".

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    Indeed; even a worm will only take so much before it turns. We have become so used to having a civil society that it is unimaginable that such protests are possible here. Our elites have pursued a program of incremental changes that the population endures as a frog slowly boiling, but there will come a tipping point, sans dents and deplorables alike.

  • Mcgoo95||

    Most of Western European society is fully burdened with personal income taxes around 50% or more. Macron must be one of the stupidest, tone deaf, leaders in modern times to think that adding an additional 20% tax to gasoline wouldn't have the results we are seeing today. Despite how proud western Europeans are of their publicly funded, socialized institutions, they are very weary of paying any more taxes. As they should be. They are just really good at not admitting that capitalism is the cure for their problems.

  • creech||

    And the same folks would riot if Macron tried to cut spending instead. I guess they think money trees grow in Provence or somewhere.

  • Mcgoo95||

    true

  • ThomasD||

    That comment misses the important distinction noted in the article - these fuel taxes are not being done so much for increasing revenue as they are meant to be punitive in order to force people to drive less.

    They aren't asking people to pay more to fund their generous (and sclerotic) welfare state, they are threatening the livelihoods and lifestyles of the very people who sustain it.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    "We will defend to death our inalienable rights to keep 50% of what we earn!!"

  • Still Curmudgeoned (Nunya)||

    Pithy yet snarky. Perfect.

  • Zeb||

    And they are good at avoiding paying taxes whenever possible. Which is difficult with fuel taxes.

  • tlapp||

    About 18 years ago I visited Greece. They had government pensions, healthcare, paid college etc. At the same time they had a decade of net emigration of young people, that has continued, who did not say thank you for all those socialist privileges but realized they could not afford all the "free" benefits.

    Remember it was the workers in Poland in the 1980's that started the Solidarity movement and toppled the socialism that was supposed to be the utopia for those same workers.

  • Fancylad||

    Moment libertaire français?

  • Mcgoo95||

    Peut etre! Mais probalement non..

  • Fancylad||

    Zut!

  • Dillinger||

    fun watching the Elites get jabbed in another country too

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Deliberately making fuel more expensive might not be that important to the mass-transit-loving urban elites that make up the base of Macron's support, as well as that of his ruling En Marche party, but it's a punch in the gut to small-town and rural France where, as in the U.S., cars and trucks are absolutely essential to getting from place to place and making a living.

    "Let them eat cake ride trains."

  • MJBinAL||

    Indeed.

  • Uncle Jay||

    France has betrayed the Revolution.
    There should be no taxes in any nation.
    We should be all slaves to The State and receive no compensation for the first 100 years of our lives.
    Only then will we all truly appreciate our paychecks our slavers finally give us when we hit the century mark.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Bonjour, scum.

  • NoVaNick||

    I have a good friend who is French, saw him last year and he told me that Macron was raising the price of cigarettes to something like $15 USD per pack. I told him that was outrageous and he shrugged and said "what can we do?" as he lit one up. Perhaps Macron was expecting the same reaction for the fuel tax hike?

  • Pro Libertate||

    Merde!

  • zazoo||

    Was it a Gallic shrug?

  • CE||

    Well, they did light it up.

  • NoVaNick||

    Hey Macron-we will gladly take in your yellow vests if we can send you our Antifa, #resistards, and safe-spacers

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    I'm certain that a large part of the anger is that up until recently, the government encouraged buying diesels; now that DieselGate has shown the government was fooled, people are pissed as hell that the government's response is to make the cheap car suddenly a lot more expensive.

  • NoVaNick||

    The problem with diesels is the air pollution, not the CO2, which they actually produce a lot less of than gasoline engines. There are ways to make it less polluting, and alternative fuels for ICE engines, but the econutz are not interested. They want to ban all combustion engines, then electrics will be next, and ultimately, nobody will be allowed to drive a vehicle at all.

  • John||

    The only reason the car companies cheated was because the econuts set the particulate standard for diesels at absurdly low levels. The actual emissions of those cars, while above the econut manadated limits, were actually cleaner than that air in some cities. The Greens hate people and prosperity and see environmentalism as a way to inflict their hatred of humanity on the world. No standard short of death is ever going to satisfy them.

  • Zeb||

    And the thing Volkswagen did to cheat on the emissions test (as I've had it explained to me) didn't raise CO2 or particulate emissions. It actually made it more efficient. It created too much nitrogen oxides for the standard, but still probably less in a year than a big truck does when you see a big puff of black smoke come out.

  • MJBinAL||

    Of course, out own gasoline cars are less efficient than they could be in order to reduce nitrous oxides. They are formed in the increased combustion temperatures that efficient combustion yields. So in our cars, we jigger the timing and reduce the compression to reduce the efficiency and lower the combustion temperatures, then use catalytic converters to clean up the exhaust (they can't reduce NOx emisions)

    So by being less efficient, they burn more fuel and produce more CO2 as a result (there is no free lunch in science either).

    The same thing in our diesels as well, the ureatha injected to reduce NOx emissions, reduces combustion temperatures and reduces fuel economy. In short, we increase fuel us and CO2 emitted, in order to reduce NOx.

    The enviro wackos have drawn the conclusion that we need to eliminate fossel fuel use. Since other sources will not support the population in anything other than poverty, they conclude that the population needs to decrease. Guess who they think is expendable?

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    The people who bought the damned cars don't give a shit why the government switched; they are just pissed that overnight, the cars the government encouraged them to buy with cheap tax policies are not too damned expensive for no fault of their own. They were doing what government incentives pushed them to do, and now they are being punished for it, and they are hopping mad.

    That is my thesis.

  • ThomasD||

    I'd say it is worse than that.

    The perception is that the government has shifted from "how about you drive this" to "how about you don't drive."

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    So... are the protesters demanding France leave the Paris Climate accord?

  • Mcgoo95||

    Of course not...they are all in favor of it as long as they don't have to pay for it.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    So now that the bill just came in, they're no longer in favor of it.

  • Mcgoo95||

    I'm sure they're in favor it. They just don't want to pay for it. That's how things (don't) work over there.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Macron vows to stay the course on the Paris Climate accord.

    Note, protesters are waving French flag, not EU flag. Make of that what you will.

  • BigT||

    Paris Climate Discord.

  • Zeb||

    Does anyone wave the EU flag like that? I don't think I've ever seen it. National identities remain pretty strong in Europe.

  • Mcgoo95||

    No nobody waves a EU flag except at the Commission in Brussels, and not even there so much.

  • JFree||

    That's because if you want to wave an EU flag, there are roughly 2700 pages of 'guidelines' as to how it must be waved.

  • Zeb||

    They're French. They just want more free shit.

  • Mcgoo95||

    More or less, they figure they already pay enough...and they do. 50% income tax, 20% VAT and dipshit Macron levying an additional 23% fuel tax to save the planet. They simply have no more money left to give to the government and they're pissed. Eventually they *might* figure out why all this happening and try to do something about it. But I wouldn't count on it.

  • JFree||

    The French are very much like Americans then.

  • Mcgoo95||

    It's exactly the same except the 50% average income tax, 20% regressive VAT tax, socialized collegiate system, socialized health care system, and an extra 3 layers of bureaucracy.

  • CE||

    50% is pretty close to the tax rate in California

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Yes, they're French. But arguing about stuff is more important to them than free shit.

  • Sevo||

    Many anniversaries ago, wife and I wasted a couple of mid-day hours eating and drinking wine at a side-walk cafe in the 16th arrondissement.
    The guy in the street had a bucket full of water (which he refilled from somewhere we couldn't see) a broom with green straw and seemingly all day. In the time we sat there, he tossed the water under 3 or perhaps 4 cars and slopped the broom around under them; in the interest of 'street cleaning', I guess.
    1/2-hour/car: We're going to need more than a vintage Frog whine about high taxes before I'm convinced that the riots aren't about free shit, too.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    and the few self-appointed representatives who agreed to meet with officials pulled out after threats from other protesters.

    This brought a smile to my face. Who made YOU the leader of this rabble?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Or they can have neither, and lay the foundation for more strife to come. The choice is theirs to make.

    Sacré bleu!

  • John||

    Populism has all of these pajoritive connotations. But in reality, isn't Libertarianism and freedom in general necessarily "populist"?

  • Mickey Rat||

    There are different flavors to populism. I have shied away from it because of the conspiratorial mind set that seems to come with it most of the time. Like the attitude that politicians know what should be done, they are just not doing it because they benefit somehow.

    On the other hand, the populist movements we are getting now seem to be based on a definite conflict of visions between the Western political class and a significant segment of the ordinary people on what makes a just government and culture. These people are telling the ruling classes "no" and the ruling classes are reacting with disbelief to angry resentment.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Depends on who the populist is.

  • JoeBlow123||

    I think this is baloney. I think a lot of populists are unrealistic buffons, just like most people. Everyone wants everything but wants to sacrifice nothing.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    But in reality, isn't Libertarianism and freedom in general necessarily "populist"?

    No. It is individualist. There's a difference.

    Populism is the general belief that the mob is always right.

    Individualism is the general belief that the individual is always right.

    As an example, the Russian Revolution and the Cuban Revolution were populist-based. We see how those turned out.

  • ThomasD||

    "Populism is the general belief that the mob is always right."

    Jesus Jeff, do you ever do anything but pull stuff out of your ass?

    And could you ever do so without telegraphing your own preferred opinions?

    mob???

    always???

    Populism is fundamentally about recognizing a class or group of 'the ordinary" or "common man" as apart from or in opposition to some sort of elect or elite class or group.

    Common Sense (of the Reidian sort) is very much populistic No mob involved.

    Never mind that individualism says nothing about whether the individual is right, Individualism means nothing if it does not allow the individual to be wrong.

  • ThomasD||

    But, I guess, in that sense you are quite the individualist.

  • MJBinAL||

    He certainly is.

  • CE||

    not popular enough to be populist

  • ||

    But in reality, isn't Libertarianism and freedom in general necessarily "populist"?

    One would think so but a quick glance at the general inclinations of the body politic should disabuse one of that notion rather quickly.

  • John||

    That just means it is hard. But ultimately, it has to be populist or isn't freedom. Moreover, whatever you think of the inclinations of the body politic, the inclinations of the self appointed elite are always much worse.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    the inclinations of the self appointed elite are always much worse.

    But served with craft cocktails.

  • JoeBlow123||

    "Moreover, whatever you think of the inclinations of the body politic, the inclinations of the self appointed elite are always much worse."

    Baloney.

  • Uncle Adolf’s Gas and Grill||

    I have a feeling Reason will shortly have to learn to call Marine LePen Madame President without choking on the words.

  • BigT||

    President Cheeto has a cocktail frank boner.

  • MJBinAL||

    I am sure you are an expert in cocktail frank boners.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Guillotines. The original woodchippers.

  • SIV||

    But the country also needs the free market reforms that Macron has promised and that the protesters have added to their list of grievances.

    Under Macron the authoritarian bathwater is so toxic you have to throw the baby out too.

  • Hattori Hanzo||

    What did the French expect to happen after electing Macron? This is the government they voted for.

  • mtrueman||

    "This is the government they voted for."

    They too have a rigged system. You can't blame the French public too harshly when the choice they are given is between a French Clinton and a French Trump.

    "Contributing Editor J.D. Tuccille writes from Arizona."

    Surely such a contributor should be writing about the Honduran invasion caravan of asylum seekers as they rape, rob and underbid their way north. Arizona is probably the least French of all the 50 states.

  • MJBinAL||

    Yes, they too have a rigged system. For example, it is worthwhile to remember that when it was clear that joining the EU was very unpopular, the French Elites finagled to join without a national election on it. In a word, it was rigged.

    All the nations of the EU are choking, other than Germany, as being in the EU limits them on deficit spending and currency adjustment. They are running things just as they always did, but with no relief valve on the boiler. It was always going to blow up eventually.

    But Germany (and pretty much Germany alone) is benefiting greatly.

  • Kivlor||

    hoping that suspending the planned fuel tax hike will be sufficient to calm the anger of people who are now adding to their tax protests a grab-bag of complaints about unrelated free-market reforms, particularly eased labor rules, in a country that desperately needs a liberalized economy.

    It's almost like the taxes were just the final straw in a long list of grievances, not the primary impetus.

    I note also that Reason is keeping strictly to the official talking points of the establishment, and not mentioning the outrage over the French budget, which is reportedly funding welfare for immigrants to France to the tune of 5x's the amount they will be spending on their own people's welfare...

  • MJBinAL||

    WHAT!? You mean ... that Reason is .... supporting the progressive agenda? Why ... How .... Um .... Say it ain't SO!

    Yeah, right.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Look, the French love to argue more than anything else. They strike or protest for sport and entertainment as much as for cause. The urban aloofness of Parisians predates Colombus. And they invented bureaucracy. Not to mention they are as full of themselves as any culture can be.

    But they put on a good show.

  • ThomasD||

    Well, this what is happening there is not remotely libertarian. They are still almost entirely socialists.

    And there can be no antithesis absent thesis.

  • CE||

    The irony is that the yellow vests themselves are government mandated -- every motorist needs to carry one in their car. So like the handmaid's in the proverbial tale, the powers that be have given the rebels a uniform.

  • jtison||

    That was exactly my first thought when I heard about these protests ... what a poke in the eye. "We will use a nanny state-mandated object to symbolize our ire". Hahahahaha. Too good.

  • CE||

    Dirigisme—government direction of the economy—may be a very French concept

    We call it "fascism" in the US.

  • Rock Lobster||

    Maybe the frogs are actually noticing that the gradually heating pot of socialist authoritarianism is about to come to a boil and have decided to make their escape.

    Leave it to the French to fuck up a perfectly good metaphor. Selfish bastards.

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