Decades of inequality lie behind French protests

After four months of weekly gilets jaunes protests, some of which have turned violent, the end is still not in sight.

27 March 2019
By Selma Daddi

Professor Emeritus Richard Wilkinson from the University of Nottingham told Connexion it is a result of decades of rising social imbalance in France and will take a long time to correct.

The professor has co-authored two books on social inequality and places France in the middle of developed countries, above the UK and US but considerably behind Japan and Scandinavian countries where levels of inequalities are lower and levels of happiness higher.

He said: “Most countries have increased their inequalities since 1918 notably because of the rise of liberalism.

“It leads people to have a lower level of trust, because there is this idea that some people are worth more than others.

“When status becomes more important, violence can be triggered by people who feel disrespected, devalued or humiliated.”

This is because inequality is a “social stressor.”

He said the gilets jaunes represent the lower classes who suffer most from inequalities.

The effects are wide-ranging, he added, including more stress and mental health issues in society as a whole, higher murder rates and more obesity.

Levels of advertising also increase as inequalities increase as people consume more.

The wealthy are also affected.

“Everyone, from lower middle classes and upper classes, would benefit from less inequality,” said Prof. Wilkinson.

He said the solutions are not easy. “Once you have a movement with a political objective [the gilets jaunes] and that conception of what is wrong in society it takes a lot to change it.”

Not only do people feel devalued but there is a gap between political parties and citizens.

“Politics divides people by increasing the importance of social classes and status.

“For decades social democratic parties have ignored the poor and allowed inequalities to grow […] so to prove another party is worth voting for and will bring change, it will take a long time.”

A better redistribution of tax, and a better way to tax would not harm France, he says, as the gilets jaunes have asked for.

He added: “We could be more equal with a more progressive taxation, a better redistribution and reducing tax avoidance.”

Some gilets jaunes have demanded the return of the wealth tax Impôt de solidarité sur la fortune. Until last year this was imposed on people with wealth of more than €1.3million including property, yachts, planes and other goods.

President Macron changed the tax to limit it to property.

Some gilets jaunes also want lower VAT on necessary items.

President Macron has said he is in favour of decreasing taxes  in a hope to end the protests.

 

Prof. Wilkinson’s latest book The Inner Level is co-authored with Professor Kate Pickett.

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