An Alternative View On The French “Yellow Vests” Riots

During the past two weeks at COP24, governments have explained the importance of implementing a just transition, or transition that leaves no-one behind. And this makes sense. Poland for instance, can’t transition from 80% coal to 100% renewables without taking into account its people.

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Anne-Sophie Garrigou

A transition away from fossil fuels to 100% renewables however is essential if we want to preserve the planet, it’s also feasible and it’s economically viable, but it requires some efforts and political will. It’s not as automatic as closing a coal mine and replacing it by a solar farm instead.

During the past two weeks, experts have explained that the reason for the French “Yellow Vests” riots was the incomprehension of the people. The general narrative is: By implementing a tax on fuel, Macron was doing something great for the planet and for the people, but the French population doesn’t get it because his government hasn’t explained how good it was for them.

How arrogant is this? We, the ones at COP24, working in climate change and renewable energy, think the people who protest in the French countryside are so wrong and just don’t get it. We are the experts after all. They don’t know what’s good for them. Well, let me tell you another reality. One that most people in this little COP bubble perhaps cannot envision, because they don’t know there is another reality out there.

I come from Dordogne, a beautiful region in the South West of France, known for its Middle Age castles and prehistoric caves. During the summer, the villages are really lively, there are food markets, and even concerts in the campsites. In the 300 person village where my parents live, tourists rent mobile-homes for a week at higher prices than the monthly salary of the campsite workers. I’m not saying everyone here is very poor. Most families have properties, and this is certainly a privilege. But my point is, once the summer is over, and all the tourists leave, the people here struggle. There are few jobs there. In the turmoil of the economic crisis, in 2015, Dordogne’s unemployment jumped to 14.6% with the youth being the most affected, and most of all: there is no public transport. So if you need to go to the closest shop, which is 8 km away, you need a car. You can’t walk to the bakery, or bike to the local market. Whatever you do, you need a car. During the winter, some villages die down a little. The shops and restaurants are only open from May to September. And, most important of all, if you have a job, it’s most likely that you have to drive 10 to 50 kms every morning and every night. Most of the time, carpooling is also not possible. So when the government raises the taxes on fuel, it makes you angry. And you have the right to be.

"We should maybe ask ourselves how much we’re doing ourselves to fight climate change."

My family doesn’t understand why I can fly from Berlin to Toulouse for 20€, when they spent 4 times that amount every month to get to work…. It’s not fair. Toulouse is the closest airport from home, and it’s still 2.5 hours away — so yes, they have to come pick me up with their car when I fly back, and the journey from the airport to their house is longer than the flight from Berlin to Toulouse…

So when we, us here at COP or us journalists and politicians in Paris, London and Berlin, talk about a just transition, and about the importance of explaining to people why this is good for us, we should maybe ask ourselves how much we’re doing ourselves to fight climate change. You can be a vegan activist against coal, only buying local food and sustainable fashion, and recycling your trash, your carbon foot print will still be way higher than most of the “Yellow Vests”, who can’t afford the three weeks holidays you took this year in Canada or Thailand, or the couple of weekends where you flew back to visit your friends and family.

If we want this transition to work, we need to include everyone and we have to look ourselves in the mirror and think about our own impact on the planet before accusing others to not understand what’s at stake. This is about equality. And let’s not judge. Because our arrogance and our inability to talk the same language might explain why people are turning to populistic politicians and fake news media. If we want everyone on board, we need to stop preaching to the converted, and start talking to people outside of the bubble.