Is Paris Burning?

May 1968 – Paris riots, led by students agitating against capitalism and every other “ism” except Marxism. 1966 saw the premiere of Is Paris Burning?, a classic World War II movie about the German general who refused explicit orders from the Nazi high command to put Paris to the torch after the Allies invaded Europe in the summer of 1944. It seems that only the French have an interest in burning their capital city. Why this time and with so much ferocity, such as to make the anti-Trump “resistance” look as confrontational as a chess tournament?

Paris rioters in “yellow jackets” amid tear gas at the Arc de Triomphe. Credit:

Paris rioters in “yellow jackets” amid tear gas at the Arc de Triomphe. Credit:

A tax on diesel and gasoline set to begin next month led directly to the riots. But perhaps there’s another reason, one that resonates with similar issues in American life today. The tax was imposed by an elitist government on common people, issued by people at the top of government who never drive their own car to work or shop for their own groceries. In America, we disdain the notion of an “elitist” cadre running the government (even though we basically operate the same way), but the French (and British) are very committed to that approach. The 20 percent who are on top, economically and socially, decided that the 80 percent who are just getting by on their daily or weekly paycheck had to pay more for one of life’s basic necessities – fuel.

To end the riots and demonstrations, the government backed down yesterday, announcing that the tax imposition would be delayed at least for six months. It’s not a large tax, only about 4 percent, but it may be the straw that figuratively broke the camel’s back, since French fuel prices are about double what we pay in the U.S.

To me this turn of events carries an object lesson in how NOT to deal with climate change, even though the tax wasn’t specifically about climate change. Just about every “climate expert” will tell you that we need a carbon tax (and the more honest among them will tell you it needs to be large enough and painful enough to change behavior, to get people once again to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, to be willing to pay up for urban mass transit, etc.)

To quote yesterday’s New York Times story on these events,

Along with a suspension of the gas tax increase, the government said it would also delay new vehicle inspection measures and increases in electricity rates that were intended as part of Mr. Macron’s plans to transition France toward cleaner energy. But to the protesters, Mr. Macron is concerned about the end of the world, while they are worried about the end of the month. (Emphasis added.)

This story shows me that experts just don’t live in the same world as the average Joe or Jane, Jesus or Maria. Experts make nice salaries, have lifetime jobs in government or nonprofits, drive electric or hybrid cars, work in buildings with LEED certificates, and live in “nice” communities among people mostly like themselves. They’re not the people who voted to put Donald Trump in the White House in 2016. Those who did responded to Trump’s populist message, just as the French rioters have responded to similar messages against an elite they see as out of touch with the needs and concerns of ordinary people.

So my challenge to climate change experts is simply this: when you design and recommend policies for the most important political and economic issue of our time, think about how it will affect the person who rings up your purchases at Costco or Walmart (I know, you would NEVER shop there), who waits on tables or pulls a pint at your favorite restaurant, or who feeds your kids at the school cafeteria. If you can’t convince them to buy into your approach, maybe you need to rethink it and find some approaches that are truly “win/win” for everyone.