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Fuel rises don’t hit poorest - they don’t have cars

In the beginning, the gilets jaunes protests were said to highlight a divided nation – rich cities versus poor rural areas, but is that too simplistic?    

In early December, polls showed that 75% of French people supported the protests, sparked by the rise in fuel taxes.

The grassroots movement originated outside city centres in places where people depend on their cars to get to work. It quickly spread, developing into an expression of public discontent with the general cost of living.

The “élites” in Paris are making decisions on behalf of a France they misunderstand, the gilets jaunes said.

But Jean-Nicolas Fauchille, urbanist and co-author of Théorie de la justice spatiale (Theory of spatial justice) with Jacques Lévy and Ana Póvoas (Editions Odile Jacob) does not believe in this idea of two Frances – city centres and poor, rural France in opposition. French geographer Christophe Guilluy referred to these poorer zones away from town centres as “la France périphérique”, a term which Mr Fauchille contests, saying it ignores the presence of poverty in urban areas.

Mr Fauchille said: “There is no clean break between the city and country in France. This binary division that cuts France into two – rich and poor, city and country – does not go hand in hand with the numbers.

“Poverty is primarily in cities, proportional to the number of people inhabiting the urban space.”

Poverty is also found in rural areas but in much smaller quantities.

Eight out of 10 poor people live in the banlieues of big cities, where the highest number of the poorest people are found. In Paris alone, there are as many people living in poverty as there are in all of France’s rural communities combined, said Mr Fauchille.

The objectives of the gilets jaunes differ depending on where protesters live, he said. It is their place of living which informs their idea of social justice – but he added that all protesters share “a feeling of being abandoned”.

The fuel tax protests were started by people living in the peri-urbain, an area outside of a town or a city beyond the banlieues.

Roughly 25% of the population live in the peri-urbain, Mr Fauchille said.

 Residents here are homeowners, with houses purchased on credit. They work qualified jobs but do not go into higher tax thresholds.

They are, however, saddled with high fixed outgoings. With mortgages and the cost of running two cars – necessary to travel the many kilometres to work – they are financially stretched and therefore vulnerable to the rise in fuel tax.

Mr Fauchille pointed out that working-class people living in the banlieues are less affected by the extra centimes a litre of fuel now costs, because they have no car to run or mortgage to pay. 

 The result is that within the gilets jaunes, two opposing objectives exist.

Residents of the peri-urbain demand lower taxes to lighten their financial burden, preferring privatisation and less public services.

On the other hand, gilets jaunes in rural areas demand the opposite. They want more state-sponsored services such as schools and hospitals and a more comprehensive welfare state.

Closure of small schools, hospitals and post offices deemed too costly to run makes these people dependent on travelling to towns and cities.

“People in rural areas do not expect a university, but they do demand a minimum standard of living,” said Mr Fauchille, adding that there are very few truly rural areas left in France.  “France has many farmers, but they largely live within towns or cities and commute to the countryside to work.”

Urbanisation has been happening for more than 40 years. City centres are still the domain of the wealthy and highly qualified, but individuals choose to move to towns and cities.

They believe there are more job opportunities and a higher quality of life, he said. “A hundred years ago, 10% of people lived in towns and cities. Now it is 50% of people.”

Mr Fauchille highlighted a shared belief among all the people he interviewed. Despite differences of opinion and place of living, they classed equality of education, the fight against poverty and respect for the rules as integral to social justice, he said.

 “For a long time, we have separated two different political visions: those who prefer more conservative policies and the other side, who want equality. What has changed now is that they are more in parallel with one another.”

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