Lessons from the Gilets Jaunes on Climate Change and Migration

How to link the personal impact of the phenomenon of the “Gilets Jaunes” to the global developments on climate change and migration?  This has been in the forefront of my mind these past few weeks. The Gilets Jaunes movement is a very domestically French phenomenon, while my interests in both climate change and migration are very much at the global level. Both of these issues have gained momentum through significant global gatherings to move in new directions – the one in Katowice, Poland and the other in Marrakech, Morocco – both of them held in December. But the phenomenon of thousands of yellow-vested protesters has brought to the forefront in my thinking the localized nature of the global debates on these two very issues and how dependent we all are on enabling a genuine inclusiveness at both local and global levels.

I am personally committed to both globalism and multilateralism; and I have been writing commentaries on my website to promote a dialogue on inclusiveness in international relations. But here I am confronting the very localized implications of these global issues in the remarkable upsurge of everyday people, friends and neighbors in my own community – spontaneously joining together at nearby traffic circles (the French call them “ronds-points”) –  in their “yellow vests”.

The Gilets Jaunes at the Saint-Jacques Rond-Point, 22 December 2018

To protest, first and foremost, the fuel tax increases that are so integral to combating climate change. And so, rather fittingly, to pull out and put on these yellow vests from their cars, where all citizens are required to have one handy for emergencies. A symbolic gesture of protest against the rising cost of the fuel to operate these very cars.  But then, to protest even more, as the spontaneity of the gatherings has led to broader protests against the growing inequalities in society with which we are all grappling.

Meanwhile, the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration had been approved by over 190 member states of the UN in July (evidently only the US and Hungary against it then).  It was then “unanimously” approved by some 164 countries at the Marrakech Summit on 10 to 11 December 2018 and then welcomed by an overwhelming majority at the UN General Assembly on 19 December 2018. (See the Global Compact here and the UNGA Resolution here.) The Katowice Climate Change Package, meanwhile, was approved by an even larger number of governments at the twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP24) for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change on 15 December 2018. (See more on the Katowice Climate Change Package here.) Quite an eventful week of global accomplishments!

Flaws in the Consensus on Migration

On closer examination, however, neither the Global Compact nor the Katowice Package was adopted by a consensus, and each showed signs of disturbing undercurrents. The Marrakech Summit suffered from a growing number of dissenters, symbolized by the announced decision of some 29 countries not to attend the Marrakech Summit. So the warning signs were already showing. And then there was a recorded vote in the UN General Assembly on 19 December, where only 152 member states voted in favour of officially welcoming the Compact that had been blessed in July by over 190 member states and adopted in Marrakech by 164 on 10 December.

Fair enough, the advocates of the Marrakech Compact on Migration (as it has now been renamed) still assert that this is an overwhelming majority. But there were, nonetheless, 29 states who stayed away from Marrakech, and a total of 51 states missing from the UNGA majority – that is to say, five states voted against the UNGA resolution, 12 abstained, and another 24 were simply not present.  I personally think that this growing crack in the consensus on global migration policy is an alarming one, and the implications are especially a growing cause for concern in the European context. More on this later in this commentary.

Warning Signs in the Climate Change Debate

Also alarming is the absence of consensus on climate change. This is so in spite of the fact that the outcome of COP24 in Katowice, Poland is widely being hailed among advocates of climate change as a success. This particular COP24 had as its main objective the adoption of a “rule book” for implementing the Paris Agreement of 2015 on Climate Change. We all saw the media images of a truly relieved display of joy among the participants (an impressive total of some 22,000) at the end of the two weeks of intense and late-night negotiations when this rule book was finally agreed (most of it, anyway) and integrated into the final “Katowice Climate Change Package”.  But the warning signals were also there.

First, the Katowice gathering had benefited from a very positive media campaign on a report that had been mandated at the Paris COP in 2015 and was completed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) a few weeks before the Katowice meeting.  (See the IPCC summary report for policymakers here.)  Although the Paris COP had produced a new climate change framework applicable to all participating countries, it was based on a consensus around targeting a certain goal of reducing total carbon emissions to achieve no more than a 2°C increase above pre-industrial levels in global warming. However, there had also been a coalition of small and medium island states at the Paris Conference who had argued that this was still too much of an increase for their survival.

My recollection is that they were persuaded to go along with the target at 2°C in the final Agreement as long as consideration was given to a study of a lower target, of 1.5°C. The final version of the Paris Agreement, then, was carefully worded to accommodate the more ambitious objective while still keeping the official focus on the 2°C target. This study, published by the IPCC this past October, received big media headlines that catastrophe would strike everyone (and especially the small island states, of course) if action was not taken NOW and within the next 12 years (by 2030) to reduce carbon emissions to ensure an increase to no greater than 1.5°C.

Critics of this IPCC study were widely categorized in the media as “climate deniers”. And there are, of course, plenty of villains in this category, starting with President Donald Trump in the US: And sure enough, the President sent a delegation to the Katowice COP 24 that was clearly instructed to oppose endorsement of the IPCC report. The US was joined by three other fossil-fuel producing villains – Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – in blocking a consensus on welcoming this report. In addition, the US delegation was quite the magnet for climate change advocates who vociferously and raucously disrupted a session convened by the US delegation and its partners on how clean coal can be a part of the climate change world.  One should note, however, that the  four villains previously mentioned were not necessarily alone in their stance since even the host country for this COP 24, Poland, did highlight how they had made great progress on climate change even with the widespread and continued use of coal as a major energy source.

My main point, though, is that the Paris Agreement has an inherent flaw that was not fixed in Katowice, even with a new rule book strengthening accountability and reporting rules. That is to say, the Paris Agreement does not mandate any actual targets to get to the 2°C level, to say nothing about the 1.5°C level. It seems that this is all being left to a first accounting of National Action Plans in 2020, even though it is widely recognized that current commitment levels of the parties will take the overall total rise in global warming to well above 3°C unless more radical actions are carried out in a timely fashion. So no one is close to enabling the target, whether it is 1.5°C or 2°C. And everyone seems to be patting themselves on the back because they have this system in place to – well, to do what, exactly? Embarrass everyone in 2020? Well, the US Presidential election in 2020 is ONE DAY before the formalities of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement are fully realized. So whoop! Trump’s replacement will save the day?

Localizing the Climate Change Debate

More fundamentally, the fact that no country is yet where it needs to be to avoid a climate change catastrophe in the future is a serious warning signal that global action is not yet where it needs to be on this issue. And this brings me back to the “Gilets Jaunes” here in France. After all, what was the issue that triggered these protesters to gather around the many famed “ronds-points” of the French road system?

Our first delivery to the olive oil mill

On a very personal level, I can verify that they have been at the rond-point in nearby Saint Jacques from week to week starting on 17 November, just a few kilometers from where we live at the western edge of Grasse. In fact, we were directly affected by this. We had just delivered our first harvest of olives from our 17 olive trees to the local olive oil mill and were due to pick up the processed oil on that very day. Lo and behold, the mill was unexpectedly closed because the Gilets Jaunes had blocked the traffic coming through that rond-point in Saint-Jacques. In fact, that rond-point was a uniquely effective bottleneck for this area – strategically chosen for its capacity to be used by the protesters to block local traffic. Fortunately for us, the local mayor did intervene to persuade the protesters that their right to protest should not disrupt the ability of local businesses to serve their customers, but that only happened in the following week.

The Mayor meets with the Gilets Jaunes at the Rond-Point in Saint-Jacques

The protesters have remained at the rond-point and even set up a tented area with refreshments and food to keep everyone nourished, but they now wave their protest signs at the passing motorists without disrupting traffic. The Gilets Jaunes have not been so accommodating elsewhere, including nearby Cannes and Antibes or Marseille, where the autoroute has been blocked and highway tollbooths damaged.  But then, the main attention has been directed to the mobilizing of the Gilets Jaunes to protest en masse along the Champs-Elysées and the major rond-points in Paris.

So what is the protesting all about? Well, it started with an objection to a scheduled increase in the fuel taxes for gas and diesel, scheduled for January 2019, on top of both another tax and increasing fuel prices in 2018. The yellow vests were symptomatic of their dependence, as low and middle income families, on driving long distances in their predominantly diesel-fueled cars for their work and livelihoods. French demographic trends have aggravated this, it seems, with metropolitan centers that are increasingly dominated by well-off urban dwellers who have effectively forced lower income workers into the suburbs and rural areas where public transport and Uber are not realistic alternatives for getting to work, school, markets and health services.

The Macron government eventually got around to emphasizing how important it was to fight climate change and that raising the taxes on diesel and other carbon emitting energy sources was integral to that fight. Yes, of course. This was rather persuasive, if a bit belated. But the counter argument from the Gilets Jaunes was that this was an unfair tax burden on the poor for what might be a legitimate national objective. An overview of tax policy changes was especially damning when it showed how the Macron government had abolished a wealth tax resulting in a savings of as much as 70% on the tax bill of the richest without any comparable adjustment for anyone else!  And the charts even showed an increasing tax burden on the poor. Now that was a striking contrast! And it has led to a broadening of the issues raised here and there by the Gilets Jaunes.

The Broadening of the Local Demands

This has become quite a cacophony of demands – to fix the tax structure, to change the government, to demand the resignation of the unpopular Macron, to introduce an entirely new governance structure based on public Internet-driven referendums, and so forth. It is an odd kind of movement since its popularity is driven by a resistance to any kind of representation or structure. No support, then, has been forthcoming to actually negotiate these changes with the existing government.

On the other hand, there has been a wide array of commentators seeking to give some definition to the movement. No organized party is formally associated with the protesters, whose political alignments are reportedly a mix of extreme left and extreme right plus a hefty chunk of disaffected non-voters – few, if any, have been identified with the centrist but reform-generated République en Marche (REM) that serves as the Macron political network. Demographic analyses have zeroed in on the anti-urban, anti-intellectual, anti-elitist characteristics of the protesters, and some have even suggested that this movement might eventually morph into a credible opposition to the REM.

Of course, the popularity of the protesting has faded a bit. Relatively small local contingents of the Gilets Jaunes have been visible on a daily basis, day and night throughout the week, but the rallying cry has been for targeted protests each Saturday. From official reports of some 232,000 people (or even as many as 300,000, according to some sources) across the country in their yellow vests on the first Saturday, 17 November, to 166,000 on 24 November and 136,000 on 1 and 8 December and down to 66,000 on 15 December. And the local movements each Saturday have been supplemented with massive turnouts in Paris as the center of the French political world – where they have been disrupted by gangs intent on violence blending in with the large crowds. Some critics note that it is this spillover into violence that has attracted the media attention as well as the official response of heightened security and closing down of public sites by the Macron government. But it is also likely that the overwhelming majority of the protesters are non-violent.

President Macron did finally mobilize his team to respond, and he delivered a major speech to the nation on 10 December (the same day that the Marrakech Summit was approving the Global Compact on Migration, by the way). He acknowledged the mistakes of his government to have proceeded in an unbalanced way on the reforms in the 2017 platform that had served to elect him to the Presidency. He announced several measures – to end the fuel tax increases, of course, but also to raise the minimum wage, and waive certain other tax increases on lower income people. These are what are now getting enacted by the National Assembly in a rush before the Christmas holiday. But what is most striking from my own perspective is the way that the Macron government is urging a structured national “dialogue” that clearly links the protesters’ concerns to the global issues of both climate change and migration.

Implications for the Global Debates

Without dwelling on the details of these domestically driven reform initiatives, this commentary seeks to identify the ways in which this yellow-vest phenomenon has implications for the global debates on climate change and migration, the two issues that were coincidentally witnessing major defining moments at the global level in parallel to what was happening domestically in France. Most intriguing in this respect is President Macron’s announcement of plans for a public dialogue in the coming three months. He has mentioned four themes for the dialogue – ecological transition, taxation, public services and a democratic debate. And although the Macron government appears to be setting out the “red lines” for what will not be included, the whole project is officially to be administered by an independent national commission that is supposed to provide a neutral forum.

So how does this existential crisis in France relate to the aforementioned global debates?  The basic point here is that the ways that the national debate is unfolding are indicative of the flaws that are evident in the global agreements. On climate change, it is a matter of a missing underlying consensus on the ecological transition that has yet to occur. And on immigration, it is even messier. This one got only a passing reference by President Macron as an issue to be included in the proposed national dialogue under the theme of “democracy and citizenship”. The odd wording that has appeared in media reports since then is that this intended to be a debate on democracy and citizenship “in which has been inserted immigration”! But more recently, the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has announced that the issue of immigration will NOT be included under this theme! (See the latest report on the planned “concertation” here.) These mixed signals about whether to include a debate on immigration in the national debate are simply a reinforcement of the schizophrenic nature of the issue, both domestically and internationally.

Implications for the Global Debate on Climate Change

To start with climate change, this was indeed the first of the four themes mentioned in the proposal for the forthcoming national debate/consultation. This was, of course, an obvious choice since the idea of taxing carbon emissions to discourage their use is certainly an option for a national action plan in support of climate change. So the matter of finding a better way of discouraging carbon emissions than one that puts the burden on the poor is a good topic for this national dialogue. The Gilets Jaunes, what’s more, seem to have organized themselves rather effectively to draft up a petition (available here) with options for this ecological transition in place of higher fuel taxes. This petition garnered some 1.2 million signatures, and President Macron has recently acknowledged its receipt and a commitment to take it seriously.

It does seem, however, that the Macron Government is not well positioned to facilitate this debate. Well, it is more the case that the advocacy groups for climate change that are active in the French political world are not fans of the government.  And perhaps in response to what President Macron proposed on 10 December, four of these advocacy groups have joined together and announced their own petition that has garnered over one million signatures in 48 hours to condemn the “inaction climatique” by the state. Translated into English, the advocates explain that “The State’s failing action in the fight against climate change reflects a flawed deficiency “in the face of its” obligation to protect the environment, human health and human security “. (The four advocacy groups are Greenpeace, Oxfam, the Foundation for the nature and the Man (FNH) and the association Our affair to all. See a report on their petition here.)  These groups have announced that the government has two months to respond to their criticisms and that they will launch a legal action before “the administrative tribunal in Paris” if they are not satisfied. The Macron Government has also suffered some negative publicity over the abrupt resignation of Nicholas Hulot as Minister of Ecology, claiming that President Macron was not facing up to the environmental challenges of the country.

One can infer from these developments that there is a strong environmental contingent in France that is neither aligned with the Gilets Jaunes nor, actually, with the Macron Government! The petition coming from the Gilets Jaunes does include alternatives to fuel taxes, while the environmentalists’ petition is obviously more far-reaching.  The challenge is to find ways for both sides to participate in a constructive dialogue. This is especially urgent, given that France is seen globally as being in the forefront of action on climate change. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change was reached pre-Macron, but it is, after all, President Macron who stood up to President Trump and actively urged him not to withdraw from it. President Macron has even made it a top priority for the EU parliamentary elections in May 2019 and for his hosting of the G7 Summit in August 2019. (See the G7 priorities here.) This might be a stimulating few months in France, and one can thank the Gilets Jaunes for making it a priority for this concertation initiative. One can only hope that realistic options will unfold that do in fact identify the realistic and feasible ways to achieve that 2°C (and maybe even the 1.5°C) target after all.

Implications for the Global Debate on Immigration

As for the immigration issue, the French Government seems to have decided against including it as part of the theme on democracy and citizenship in the proposed debate/concertation initiative. It may be that this is because the Gilets Jaunes appear to be stirring up a lot of support for the idea of regularly holding a public referendum to displace the parliamentary system of governance. While the Gilets Jaunes do not seem to be either pro- or anti-immigration, there is a fanning of anti-immigration rhetoric by Marine Le Pen and others on the extreme right. This makes the referendum debate in France rather risky.

Lots of attention is being directed to the widespread practice of holding referendums in neighboring Switzerland, and one can expect that possible issues for inclusion in a referendum context will be discussed in this forthcoming national debate. This sends up the warning signals. One might recall that the Swiss have held more than one referendum on restricting immigration into Switzerland, even from France and other EU countries and that the Brexit vote (another referendum) was also motivated in large part by anti-EU immigration into the UK. To include immigration as something related to the debate on democracy and citizenship risks the possibility of a highly inflammatory referendum on immigration in France itself.

What is evident in the cautionary approach to migration reforms by President Macron is that the French leadership role at the EU level as well as at the global level would really be set back if a French referendum forced the government to change its position. When Macron joined with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in June to propose a revision of EU migration policies, it seemed that there was some chance of hammering out a compromise package by year’s end. In fact, the anticipated compromise by the EU heads of state and government was delayed month by month from October to November to December, with no resolution.

Since then, the parallel timing of adopting the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration steadily lost support, especially within the EU. With only the USA and Hungary as visible opponents in July, the critical decision by Austria to join the opposition in August was followed by a deluge of domestic challenges in many of the other EU member countries.  Ultimately,  when the resolution welcoming the Marrakech Compact was brought to the UN General Assembly on 19 December, Poland and Czech Republic joined Hungary to vote against it, and Bulgaria, Italy, Latvia, Lichtenstein and Romania joined Austria in abstaining. Slovakia didn’t even record an abstention, and several others (the Netherlands, Slovenia, Croatia) presented supplementary reservations. The Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was forced to tender his resignation after losing the support of an anti-immigrant party in his coalition.  Switzerland, too, was an abstainer, citing concerns about soft law commitments being vulnerable to creating international legal obligations.

If one looks more closely at the UN vote, one can see that this migration issue has a few critics in other parts of the world besides Europe. Israel, not surprisingly, but also Singapore and Australia in Asia, Chile in South America, Algeria and Libya in North Africa. But the bulk of the resistance has come from European countries – and the US, of course. The crazy man in the White House keeps on wanting to build a wall along the border with Mexico (but not Canada), while the UN condemns Libya for human rights abuses and the EU stands by its existing reliance on Libya to stem the flow of irregular migrants into Europe. Interestingly, while Italy attracts the media coverage in its refusal to accept ships carrying these irregular migrants into its ports, France has quietly kept its own ports and borders under tight scrutiny.

This may not be the time to push for innovative new approaches to immigration, but it is worthy of note that there is now global framework to serve as a reference point for future debates. While opposition to the Marrakech Compact has become a rallying point among anti-migrant factions, the Compact does offer a convenient if a bit over-long list of some 23 objectives. It is also premised on upholding national sovereignty in setting migration policy. Critics argue that its listing of “voluntary commitments” to respect the universality of human rights and to take various actions for the regularizing of migration are intended to encourage migration, and may have the effect of encouraging even more irregular migration.

In response to these critics, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres defends these objectives for incorporating a range of humane and sensible actions that include efforts to end unscrupulous smuggling practices and to  encourage prospective migrants to stay at home. The business world seems to be especially supportive of the Compact’s encouragement of skills mobility, responsible recruitment practices, and more flexible pathways that would even facilitate more pathways for the return of migrants to their home countries. And, with a review process and a new coordinating mechanism under the International Organization for Migration, there is now a process for facilitating a constructive debate on these issues.


The stage is set for locally driven debates – in France, to be sure, but also in the US and elsewhere – on these global issues of climate change and migration. The global frameworks that were adopted in Katowice and Marrakech can serve as useful tools for guiding the direction of these localized debates. The focus here has been on the localized debates in France, but one can also look to the preoccupation with Brexit in the UK or the campaign building up to the European Parliamentary elections throughout the European Union or the impasse on border wall spending in the US, along with the looming confrontation on broader migration policy between a Democratic House of Representatives and the US President. These may all be national or regional debates, but they all have very localized roots and need to engage the local perspectives to build any kind of consensus for collaborative action to move forward. The yellow vests are conveying this lesson in a colorful and illuminating way. We should all be looking forward to open and inclusive debates in the coming months on how global solutions on issues like climate change and migration can be found and will truly depend on our personal actions. Happy New Year!


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