I love a good protest, and here is the tale of two of them – hemispheres apart but occurring nearly simultaneously and, in many ways, for the same reasons.
This week in France, there have been sporadic but surprisingly effective protests by Les Gilets Jaunes – noisy knots of mostly middle aged people dressed in the floursecent yellow vests (gilets) that drivers are required to carry in their cars here. Les Gilets Jaunes have blockaded major roads and roundabouts and commandeered (and in some cases set fire to) toll-pay gates on motorways to disrupt traffic and thereby gain very visible attention for their cause. They have focused on blocking lorries from delivering goods to supermarkets. They wave ordinary drivers – especially those displaying their own gilets jaunes in their windscreens in solidarity – through their blockades, often after aggressively eliciting supportive hoots on car horns. Unfortunately, in some parts of the country, yellow-vested people claiming association with this leaderless movement have stopped cars containing migrants, people of colour and people they believe to be homosexual, dragged drivers and passengers from their cars and beaten them. People have died; some through this violence and some yellow-vesters who have been hit by cars and trucks driven by antagonised commuters.
What is their cause? What are they protesting about? It’s quite hard to say definitively because they lack leaders, any real organisational structure and any collective manifesto. They appear to have risen in anger over a range of things, including unemployment (especially of the middle aged) and job losses, the general cost of living and – most notably – the cost of fuel. France has a history of grassroots revolution emerging from general anger. A couple of them were highly successful. The most recent major uprising, a union and student-led revolt in 1968 that was much more organised, structured and ideologically driven than this Gilets Jaunes revolt was not.
When everything is stripped away, the common complaint of the Gilets Jaunes is that petrol is too expensive and that government taxes on petrol (including, most notably, some recently imposed by the government as one response to climate change and Big Oil’s impact on the climate) are too high and are making daily life financially unsustainable for the ordinary French. Of course, the oil companies’ response to the government’s additional climate change taxes on their product was to immediately pass those costs on to the consumer via price increases.
I get Les Gilets Jaunes’ point, and to a degree I support their methods (they work; they’re getting attention at least) but they are only expressing anger; they offer no solutions. The main criticisms you could make of the Gilets Jaunes ‘movement’ are that it is selfish, narrow-minded and vague. But their methods – which are mainly hurting poorer, working (and unemployed) people and business – are proving to be effective, at least at getting attention and having the broader population consider their complaints.
The second protest happened this week across major cities and towns in Australia when secondary school students went on strike to voice their concerns over the Australian Government’s inaction on climate change. They expressed their concern for their future and the future of our planet via rallies, marches, chants and slogans on posters, and – as is so necessary these days – blanket social media coverage. Thousands of young people gathered in public places to take part in this process. They didn’t block roads. They didn’t burn property. They committed no violence. They spoke – loudly, clearly, articulately – about the issues around climate change that concern them and about the urgency of the situation.
There are contrasts and confluences between these two protests. First, the contrasts.
Most notably, the Australian students’ strike spoke articulately about its issue and offered solutions. Those involved spoke about their fears but also about what needed to be done. The Gilets Jaunes expressed their fears but offered no solution. Theirs was a simple cry of ‘J’ai mal’, ‘I am hurting’. The Australian students said ‘The earth is hurting and this is what we need to do now to help it’.
The spokesmen of the Gilets Jaunes (and I use the term ‘spokesmen’ intentionally) were middle-aged men, often with greying walrus moustaches and an alarmingly bland taste in clothes (beyond their lurid yellow vests). Although I can’t understand French, translations of what they said suggested that they were either inarticulate or simply didn’t know what they were protesting about. They could barely give a coherent answer to the simplest of questions on that point. All those that I’ve seen and heard on social media, mainstream TV and radio delivering the message of the Australian student strike were young women/teenage girls who had clearly prepared themselves well for their moment under the spotlight. They were informed, articulate and intelligent. They were certainly more articulate and – to borrow a term used by Australia’s Prime Minister – authentic than him or any of his government ministers on the issues of their strike and of climate change.
The Australian students were restrained and respectful. The Gilets Jaunes were – and are – undignified, indiscriminate and – frankly – dangerous.
So, where might the confluences be?
Of course, at its heart, the issue is the same – what do we need to do to prepare western society for the impact of climate change? The Gilets Jaunes seem to say ‘don’t ask me, but also don’t increase the cost of things like fuel for my car or truck for me. I just want to get on with living my life as it is.’ This self-obsessed perspective overlooks the fact that the taxes imposed on the oil companies were partly to levied to raise funds so that the French government could take the action necessary to address the harmful impacts of the continued use of fossil fuels on the environment and on society. This is similar to government taxes on tobacco. The use of tobacco creates health impacts that place greater strain than is necessary on society’s health systems, so that those suffering tobacco-related illnesses disproportionately draw on the health system’s resources compared to those who don’t use tobacco. The science around this is clear and accepted. The use of fossil fuels is similar in that the impact of their use places disproportionate strain on environmental clean-up resources compared to other uses of our environment. The difference is that the impact is felt by everyone, not just those who use oil. The Australian students are calling for everyone – but mostly their elected representatives; those making decisions now that will markedly impact their future or that of the world they will be forced to live in – to face up to this reality, to accept the science and to get on with doing the things that are necessary – vital – for dealing with those impacts. They accept that climate change is real and that human activity (especially that of the commercial and business world) is a major contributor to climate change, but they also recognise and loudly advocate for the steps we need to take to mitigate and address its impact, for the relative benefit of their generation and beyond and the planet itself.
Both protests appear to be relatively spontaneous and leaderless. Those who have stepped forward to ‘lead’ or speak for the Gilets Jaunes appear to be middle-aged men with personal axes to grind or men associated with far right or far left parties or groups promoting social agitation and unrest. They stand in stark contrast to the young women fronting the Australian students’ strike. But the lack of leaders, the lack of an organisational core for both campaigns, is interesting. Power – and responsibility – is disseminated. In both cases, the organisational glue is a clever use of social media platforms and discussion threads. From the outside, it seems that both campaigns can maintain a relatively coherent expression of their views, across a number of different spokespersons and platforms, without a pre-prepared script, without the ‘lines’ that we often see politicians spouting in interview after interview. The two protests are staying on message, without any leaders and without any policy platforms or manifestos.
Both protests seem to be driven by a bottom-up, grassroots impetus. This is how successful, sustainable revolutions have occurred in the past. Everyone involved believes in and commits to the cause organically. They feel it. They live it. They know it. They don’t need to be told why they are doing it. Therefore, they just do it. The trick is find a way to sustain the impetus into action that will create the change you want to see. Personally, I wish the Australian students every success in that regard and the Gilets Jaunes none at all.
And then there was hope. What has stirred me to write this blog-piece is not my hope that the narrow-mindedness of the Gilets Jaunes fades quickly to even less than a distant memory but the hope for the future represented by the clear-faced, clear-minded, clear-sighted young women of Australia who took part in – and spoke for - the students’ strike this week. If Australia’s future is in their hands, then we – and the world – do indeed have a future. I sincerely hope that those who stepped forward to speak for themselves, their fellow students and the planet this week – females and males – are those who will also step forward to lead Australia when their time to do so comes in twenty or more years. In the meantime, it is absolutely vital that our current leaders – and those who rise to lead Australia over the next few decades – listen very careful to these young people, their concerns, their ideas and solutions and their passion and act now to ensure that those future leaders have something to work with to save our planet. Throw down the caution represented by your hard-hats and yellow safety vests, roll up your sleeves and put your shoulders to the wheel alongside these inspirational young people. Viva la revolution des jeunes!