I love France. I have family there and many dear friends. I always look for opportunities to visit. Some in my family are social activists who “enjoy” demonstrating. So when the Yellow Vest (Gilets Jaunes) demonstrations started to take place, I was worried. I made contact and was told, to my relief, that none of my family members were participating.
The demonstrations quickly spread throughout France and became the focus of global attention. A relatively small percentage turned violent – mostly near the Arc de Triomphe and the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, at the center of Paris. A few hundred people were wounded nationwide and several hundred were arrested. There was plenty of broken glass and other damage to property, including graffiti on the Arc de Triomphe itself and damage to the museum inside. At its peak, there were fewer than one million participants across the country.
The movement originated in May when a woman named Priscillia Ludosky, who has an internet cosmetics business and lives in the suburbs southeast of Paris, launched an internet petition calling for a drop in gas prices. She broke down the price into its components, noting that taxes made up more than half the cost in France. Per liter, lead-free gas was 1.41euros on Sunday, or about $6.00 per gallon.
The petition went mostly unnoticed until October, when Éric Drouet, a truck driver from the same area as Ms. Ludosky, ran across it and circulated it among his Facebook friends. Newspapers began writing about the petition, and the number of signatures skyrocketed from an initial 700 to200,000. Today it has more than 1.15 million signatures and counting.
Those who participated were predominantly men and women who rely on their cars to get to work and take care of their families. In the mix were small-business owners, independent contractors, farmers, home aides, nurses and truck drivers. They live and work primarily in rural towns and in the suburbs or exurbs of France’s big cities, many earning just enough to get by.
Random questioning of participants reveals a lot of unfocused frustrations that the middle class (as in many other places) has a hard time making ends meet. We will see below that France is – by any standard – a rich country, with inequality no different than other large European countries. The Yellow Vests’ demands cover a broad spectrum and basically stress a desire for the government to pay more attention to their needs.
When the protests started, President Macron was in Argentina, attending the G20 meeting. As soon as he returned, he tried to meet some of the demands. Here is how one blog summarized his response:
Emanuel Macron finally responded today to the protests and riots that have roiled France. In his speech, he declared that he’s heard the anger of those whose economic suffering prompted the protests and will take immediate steps to relieve their hardship.
What steps? An increase in the minimum wage, for one. Macron announced that those earning the minimum wage will receive a supplement of 100 euros per month, or about $115.
Taxes on overtime pay will be eliminated and retiress earning less than 2,000 euros a month, about $2,270, will be exempt from a recent increase in social security taxes. Macron had already rescinded the tax increase on diesel fuel — the measure that triggered the protests.
President Trump’s comments on the Yellow Vests’ demonstrations were, as usual, by way of a tweet:
“The Paris Agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris,” Trump wrote. “Protests and riots all over France. People do not want to pay large sums of money, much to third world countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment.”
Some worry that countries and organizations view the demonstrations as a convenient vehicle with which to pursue their unrelated political agendas on social media. I will try to look at this from a more factual point of view.
To put the Yellow Vests’ most direct argument in their demonstrations against the government into context time-wise, the protesters refuse to worry now about what will happen to the world in the long run (mid-century or toward the end of the century) while they have difficulties supporting their families now. This is the old argument of having to choose between the environment and the economy.
Before getting into that important (but massive) issue, I will try to address another aspect of these events that fascinates me: the way that these demonstrations started. There are large similarities (at least in my mind) between how these protests started and how atomic bombs explode. With atomic bombs, people use materials such as uranium (235) or plutonium (239),which are fissile elements – meaning that if suitable particles such as neutrons hit their nuclei, their nuclei will break – and in the process, will release more neutrons that will continue the reaction. That chain, in turn,releases a very large amount of energy that can be used to either power or destroy a big city. Where does the first neutron that starts this chain reaction come from? The answer is that these neutrons are all around, mostly originating from the sun. They don’t usually cause any harm but if the right conditions exist – such as a critical mass of fissionable elements – they can demolish a city. The same sort of questionable sensitivity to an initial trigger can be seen in deadly fires such as the ones that devastated California recently. People are still working hard to figure out who triggered the fires and how. Some potential culprits include utility companies (putting wires below trees), car drivers who cause sparks on the road, barbecuing tourists, etc. The fact is that if the conditions are right for wildfires, triggers will always be available in abundance.
In science, critical mass is the smallest amount of fissile material necessary to sustain the nuclear chain reaction I described above. Social media, in its various forms, is responsible for expanding the critical mass of potentially explosive social issues. While it takes fewer and fewer people to trigger said chain reaction on social media, the critical mass we are talking about here is the mass needed to impact and win an election that can change policy. Social media is able to reach this mass very effectively. Unlike the critical masses of uranium and plutonium, which work to minimize the escape of newly released neutrons and maximize their availability to sustain a chain reaction that breaks the nuclei, the critical mass connected through social media is not targeted at individual properties and is much more effective at destruction than creation. Its benefits as a positive social force are a topic of much debate.
The conditions in France were ripe and the trigger was the small increase in the price of fuel. Fortunately, we now have data that will help us to form an opinion on whether the conditions exist elsewhere for such an explosion of dissent.
Table 1 shows the general economic conditions in France compared to four other large countries that are members of the EU (Brexit hasn’t gone into effect yet so I’m still including the United Kingdom):
Table 1 – Some key socioeconomic parameters of five large European countries
Data for Table 1 were taken from established large databases such as Worldometer (population), World Data Atlas (Gini coefficients that measure inequality) and IMF (GDP/Capita).
In both GDP/Capita and the GINI coefficient, France stands close to the top and is one of the richest large countries in the world. Nor is its income distribution any worse than other rich country.
This week (or roughly the first half of December) marks the anniversary of the Paris Agreement (See December 14, 2015 blog). At the time, all of France was supportive. A more recent survey about Europeans’ attitudes regarding climate change just came out. It shows that almost all French (still) believe that the climate is changing, its impacts will be bad, and the changes are at least partially caused by humans.
Figure 1, from the same survey, shows that the French, like anybody else, think that energy affordability is an important indicator. But nobody posed the issue as energy affordability colliding with mitigation of anthropogenic climate change.
Table 2 – Beliefs in the reality, causes, and impacts of climate change
I addressed such a conflict on an individual level before (October 4, 2016). I specifically followed Al Gore, who was – and still is – leading the public demand in the US to confront climate change, while at the same time leading a decadent life style that uses large amounts of energy:
Al Gore is now a rich and famous man. A short internet search brings up images of his mansion in California, which puts the Nashville one to shame, but the sheer size of these buildings requires a lot of energy. If the energy use approximately matches the average energy mix in the US, it generates large amount of greenhouse gases. I didn’t follow up on his efforts to cut down on energy usage and replace his energy sources with a more sustainable mix.However, the message from his personal life certainly undermined his message to society and, if nothing else, served as a combustible weapon in the hands of climate deniers who refuse to heed his plea.
These conflicts between present personal considerations and projections of future impact are parts of a broader complementary principle that I will discuss in the next blog.