France has been hit with unexpected massive protests and rioting since mid November last year. Protesters have numbered 283,000 at 2000 sites. While media coverage has focussed on often violent confrontations between Police and the protesters, the real story is the cause of the unrest.
The cost of living in France has been increasing while wages have remained flat. The trigger for action by many people was a rise in fuel taxes on top of growing discontent with the distribution of wealth. Jobs with higher remuneration are more centred in urban areas than previously. These urban areas are better served with public infrastructure such as subsidised public transport, cultural and sporting venues. Wealthy residents are also more concentrated in inner urban locations, the less wealthy are in outer urban areas, and the poor are often forced to live in cheaper satellite towns or regional areas. So the poorest people have the highest travel costs and lowest job opportunities. These same people feel a disconnect with the government and see recent reforms as favouring the rich at their expense. The middle classes are being squeezed financially too. The Macron government has now backed down on the proposed fuel tax increases as well as rises in gas and electricity costs but this U-turn has not quelled the ongoing unrest. In France taxes constitute 64% of the unleaded petrol pump priceand 59% for diesel. A 6.5 euro cent tax increaseon diesel had been planned for January 2019.
A second trigger for regional discontent was another transport change - the reduction of speed limits from 90km/h to 80km/h on 40% of France's road network, covering about 400,000km.
Despite the protesters being grassroot without any unifying organisations bringing them together, they have targeted transport operations and infrastructure and toll roads. No doubt this is because of the fuel tax trigger and the substantial impact of transport costs on their diminishing standard of living.
Long before the protests a petition on Change.org collected a million signatures asking the government to lower fuel prices. The government did not respond to this but instead announced the fuel tax increases. The passive disquiet grew until a truck driver proposed on Facebook a national blockage for 17 November 2018. This event reportedly attracted 280,000 participants. Many roundabouts were blocked. Toll plazas were obstructed and attacked. The fuel tax and speed limit reductions combined to anger many people to the extent that 60% of the country's 3200 speed cameras were also damaged.
The protesters became known as the Gilets Jaunes or Yellow Vests as many wear the safety vests that are a compulsory car accessory for drivers in France. Initially the vests were not worn but just displayed on the dashboard of vehicles. Soon they were being worn, perhaps also for safety while protesting on roadways. They quickly became a uniform and statement of unity or belonging to the protesting community. This reinforced the unmanaged movement.
No doubt there is a message here for transport planners. Separating the middle classes and lower paid workers places of living from their places of employment, increasing their commuting costs through fuel taxes and toll roads, lowering highway speeds together with a large number of speed cameras, all coupled together with a falling living standard will breed discontent. France crossed a threshold that brought mass action. Is there a similar line in Australia with our increasing reliance on toll roads, and affordable housing being displaced to city fringes?