The nationwide toll during the main day of action – November 17 – was one run over and killed, up to 400 wounded and more than 282 arrested.
Grassroots militants calling themselves the gilets jaunes (yellow vests), after the brightly-coloured safety tops all motorists are obliged to keep in their boots in France, were prepared to risk all on a Saturday when the country ground to a halt.
Beyond gambling with their very existence on roundabouts and at other busy junctions, some fought running battles with riot police on streets including the Champs-Élysées itself. Serious trouble in Paris also threatened President Emmanuel Macron’s official home, the Élysée Palace, where a sizeable mob had to be held back by tear gas and batons.
Yes, petrol has gone up by 15 per cent over the last year alone, and the figure is 23 per cent in the case of diesel. The cost for both at the pump is more than €1.50 a litre – among the highest in Europe. See page 2.
And yes, the blockages have wide support too. Some polls commissioned by motoring organisations show up to 80 per cent are in favour of protests, while petitions against fuel tax hikes are garnering more than half-a-million signatures.
Demonstrators argue that those living in the countryside, or in the suburbs of major cities, have no other choice but to use their cars because of the lack of reliable public transport links, and that they cannot afford expensive alternatives.
But those who are presenting this campaign as a political struggle against an unfeeling ruling class that is immune to the suffering of the poor need to think again.
President Macron’s principal motivation for placing extra tax on fuel was to open the road to the abolishment of all high-polluting cars.
Expressing his abject lack of sympathy for those involved in the action, he said last month: “People complaining about rising fuel prices are the same ones who complain about pollution and how their children suffer.”
The goal of 2040 has been set as the deadline for outlawing all petrol and diesel vehicles and to replace them with electrical ones, while big cities are being even more ambitious.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has pledged to get rid of all diesel cars by 2020, and she is also introducing some of the toughest anti-car legislation in the capital’s recent history.
Last month saw her win a significant legal victory, as the Paris administrative court ruled that roads on the historic and UNESCO-protected Right Bank will be closed to traffic permanently.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan is among many in Britain who have welcomed such French initiatives. Commenting on the 2040 time limit, he said: “This radical step shames the timid and insufficient response of our own government to the health threat posed by poor air quality”.
It’s all part of a green offensive that Mr Macron describes as an “ecological transition” for a country that currently depends far too much on fossil fuels.
Meeting global commitments mapped out by the Paris Climate Change Accord is also of paramount importance.
Clean energy of course comes at a price, but there are proposals to provide grants for those who won’t be able to afford the new types of cars. Electric and hybrid vehicles are not the only suggested options for the future, either. As in so many other parts of the world, there are currently far too many French who rely on the internal combustion engine for the most basic journeys.
Anybody examining Paris traffic jams at almost any time of the day or night will see hundreds of single occupant cars, many of them doing as much to clog up the streets as the gilets jaunes.
The situation as it stands is unsustainable. Wholesale change is coming, and risking life and limb to oppose it is as shortsighted as it is extremely dangerous.
Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion