You have to hand it to the Parisians for being expert protesters. The images from Saturday’s clashes with French authorities in the City of Lights evoke years of reinforcing what I learned in history class: the French government does something the people don’t like and suddenly barricades go up across the Champs Elysees.
Smoke from small fires and flares mixed in with the red Christmas lights strung up in trees lining the streets and flashing blue police lights, giving the whole scene eerie ambiance to go with the chaos.
While the protest from the “yellow vest” movement has grown into a review of Emmanuel Macron’s overall job as French president, its origins as a protest over gas prices highlight a major disconnect between Macron’s goals, and his understanding of how to implement them.
Despite a worldwide drop in the cost of oil, fuel costs in France have risen thanks to a duty imposed by President Macron. Macron’s impetus behind the price hike makes sense on paper: paying the tax at the pump will help offset and combat environmental woes brought on by carbon emissions and pollution inherent with operating a vehicle. It’s neither a new premise, nor a particularly complex one. But Macron showed in his defense of the unpopular policy a major disconnect between both him (and the environmental movement as a whole) and the humans they’re ultimately trying to help.
In 1953, philosopher Isaiah Berlin separated thinkers into two categories based on a single line from the Ancient Greek philosopher Archilochus: “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.” In this case, the French president is a hedgehog.
Macron understands repairing and prevent damage to the environment requires sacrifice on the part of everyone. Just as an overweight person can’t drop the pounds without sacrificing junk food, a government simply can’t eat the cost of environmental mitigation and leave the overall standard of living untouched. He knows the one big thing.
What Macron fails to see, however, is the domino effect that a fuel tax will have on France’s rural and suburban population. Cars are already an expense in the big city, where gas is already expensive, parking is a premium and a myriad of other cost-effective options await. Fifty miles outside of town, however, a vehicle (and an affordable means to fuel it) are less a luxury and more a necessity for the masses who depend on it for their daily routines. The same sacrifice asked of urban citizens has a much more serious impact on those in France’s “flyover country.”
Macron’s folly gives environmental policymakers an opportunity to look beyond the big picture mindset of a hedgehog to that of a fox. If a tax hike, or other regressive (yet ultimately necessary) measure is going to result in serious blowback, what can lessen sting?
Adopting the fox mindset for environmental issues lacks the clear cut, high concept that Macron and other environmental hedgehogs currently hold, but it could result in a much more realistic, and ultimately more effective, approach to necessary policy.