What’s happening to Emmanuel Macron’s green agenda in France ought also to throw a scare into America’s green politicians. That is, to a green-minded politico searching for greatness on the international stage, all the glittering conferences, all the praising op-eds, all the lionizing profiles—none of that means much if you find yourself in a collision with your own voters. A green politician without political support at home is, well, the future head of a foundation or international organization, not the re-elected head of a country.
In particular, the wave of protests against Macron’s new tax—aimed at reducing fossil fuel consumption in keeping with the de-carbonization goals of climate change activists—has been met by a populist buzzsaw. The so-called “yellow jackets” have been out in force for weeks, leaving hundreds arrested and injured. The demonstrations are the worst in France since 1968, when the legendary Charles De Gaulle was forced into retirement. And so on December 4 came the news that Macron’s government was suspending the fuel tax for six months.
So now Macron, the onetime golden boy of French politics, elected in a landslide just last year, is staring into the abyss of a 26 percent approval rating. In fact, Macron’s rating is 20 points lower than that of his predecessor in the Élysée Palace, François Hollande, at the same point in his presidency—and Hollande was a one-termer.
As CNBC explains, Macron is “seen as aloof and well-off and representing the elite.” So while Macron’s approval rating among the well off—to say nothing of the haute salons of London, New York, and Brussels—is probably much higher than it is in France as a whole, the plutocrats and chatterers can’t do much for Macron now.
Indeed, the fuel tax proved to be the perfect crystallization of Macron’s aloof style, which he himself volunteered to be Jupiterian. From the lofty green Mount Olympus of Macron’s world, the solution to climate change seemed as clear as the Aegean Sea on a halcyon day: impose new taxes on carbon consumption.
Greens mostly like carbon taxes because they hate fossil fuels, and, by extension, the whole consumer world of automobiles, lawnmowers, and microwave ovens. In the meantime, mainstream economists tend to favor consumption taxes because they are simple to collect. And over on the right, free marketeers are often okay with consumption taxes because they don’t involve raising rates on income and investment.
Yet there’s just one thing: in this elite technocratic conversation as to how best to proceed on decarbonization, ordinary people are left out. That is, someone without a Ph.D. or an FT subscription is unlikely to be consulted as the great and the good hammer out policy. Yet in pluralist nations, when the folks finally figure out what’s happening to them, they have ways of making their voices heard.
Hence this December 2 headline from Reuters: “France’s Macron learns the hard way: green taxes carry political risks.” As the article explained, “Macron’s plight illustrates a conundrum: How do political leaders introduce policies that will do long-term good for the environment without inflicting extra costs on voters that may damage their chances of re-election?”
Here we might pause to note that the fuel taxes in question aren’t that large—the equivalent of 12 to 24 cents a gallon. Moreover, the French are hardly strangers to big government: the state’s share of the economy has hovered between 56 and 57 percent of GDP for a decade.
Yet even if the French are used to lots of taxes, it does appear that the, er, insouciance of the new tax has stuck in their collective craw. That is, Macron seems to have indulged himself in the snobby Gallic temptation to épater (skewer) le bourgeoisie. Such skewering is hardly good politics in a democracy, but then nobody should need to be reminded that the rich are different.
Thus the fuel tax protests have morphed into a larger uprising against “Davocracy,” that being a sly reference to Davos, the site of the globalist World Economic Forum. And of course, Macron, a former Rothschilds investment banker, is a Davos Man par excellence.
So yes, it was from a high throne that Macron decreed that French carbon emissions should fall by 40 percent by 2030 and that internal combustion cars should be banned altogether by 2040.
From an Al Gore point of view, these pronouncements are not only fine but vital. Yet to the French public, those green deadlines are starting to look a little too close. And the fuel taxes are just a taste of things to come.
Indeed, the people of France might have noticed that their country accounts for less than 1 percent of world CO2 emissions. So what’s the big deal about France?
Meanwhile, around the world, CO2 emissions are rising, not falling. In fact, in China and other Asian countries, even coal consumption is rising. It would seem that the Chinese are happy to tell the green elites what they wish to hear at international conferences, even as back home they themselves continue to burn as they please. Yes, the People’s Republic is eager to sell us solar panels, but it reserves the right to pick the best energy source for itself.
Moreover, The New York Times recently reported that Indonesia, a country of 264 million, boasting the 16th largest economy in the world, is busy tearing up its carbon-sinking rain forest to grow palm oil, which can be used as a fuel that, yes, releases even more carbon dioxide. In other words, Indonesia isn’t even pretending to cooperate with the global greens.
So what was the reaction of the green elite when Asians in the East ignored international climate rules and emitted their merry way? Why, that’s easy: they cracked down harder…on Westerners. In fact, the Macronian impulse to regulate French carbon is fully consistent with the longstanding desire of past Sun Kings to regulate the peasantry: other countries, of course, have similar top-down traditions.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of an elite anywhere that doesn’t believe that it knows what’s best for the peons. Yes, there is such a thing as improving the commonweal. But as Lincoln once said, human nature can be improved but only slowly. And yet the greens, as we know, are in a hurry.
The greens in America might wish to study what’s happening in France, because they might be destined for the same blowback. After all, perhaps the quickest way to reanimate the dreaded Tea Party would be to impose a new green tax.
So what then should be done about climate change? Or at least could be done? One answer that never seems to get considered in Davosian conclaves is to finance the desired de-carbonization with taxes on the rich, as opposed to the middle and working classes. That is, instead of a Macron-style frontal assault on working stiffs, in the form of a consumption tax, what if the elite decided to finance de-carbonization out of its own wealth? What if the French government announced that henceforth, taxes on the rich will finance the production of electric cars that will then be made available, on favorable terms, to ordinary motorists? In other words, what if the rich paid for the greening of the economy?
Of course, it might be argued that the rich don’t have enough money to pay for any such green transformation. And that might well be true.
Indeed, the idea of the rich paying for the greening that so many fat cats advocate is so abstract as to perhaps qualify as a crypto-Marxist thought experiment and nothing more. Still, that thought experiment reminds us that for the greens, there are issues more important than de-carbonization, such as wealth preservation. Yet if wealth preservation is important to the rich, maybe it’s important to the middle class, too.
In the meantime, so long as the petit bourgeoisie see their green betters flying around in private jets and living in big homes, it’s a safe bet that they’ll grow increasingly resistant to hectoring dictates.
So if they’re in search of an actual, workable plan for carbon reduction, the greens will have to look beyond austerity. One such answer is atmospheric carbon capture, as argued by this author here at TAC in 2017. After all, if green plants—as in vegetation—have been capturing carbon for eons, we ought to be able to figure out how to do it, too. Carbon capture is an obvious win-win: get the benefit of the fuel and protect the environment.
It’s always seemed to me that if the elite were truly elite—that is, as smart and fit to lead as they think they are—then they’d be thinking up popular and effective solutions to problems as opposed to unpopular and ineffective solutions to problems. Macron, of course, found the latter, and now he’s probably a goner.
Yet it’s not too late for America’s greens. They’re not in power yet, and so they still have time to figure out ways to solve ecological problems without doing violence to Americans’ financial or psychological well-being.
So that’s the choice: learn from Macron’s mistakes or share Macron’s fate.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.