MPs ignored suburban and rural France at their peril

Mathematician Hervé Le Bras, emeritus researcher at France’s Institute for Demographic Studies and director of research at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, gives his verdict on the gilets jaunes and migration

27 November 2019
By Hervé Le Bras

The gilets jaunes movement was triggered by a series of government measures that made people living in the countryside feel car ownership was being attacked.

The majority of gilets jaunes protesters came from suburban and rural areas, where the problems are connected to services closing down. People in those areas have to travel further to work, to the doctor, to the chemist, the supermarket. As villages lose their shops and cafés, as maternity units, clinics, local tribunals and stations close, people are increasingly dependent on cars.

In Paris and other big cities, however, the law makers were oblivious to this. They simply wanted to make small changes that would show a government moving towards cutting carbon emissions. 

The reduction of the speed limit from 90 to 80kph was hugely unpopular, as were the new tougher MoT criteria and the resulting rises in prices for an MoT test. The media noise about diesel cars being polluting meant prices for second-hand models fell and, as crude oil prices were rising, the addition of a new tax on diesel fuel proved to be the final straw.

People in rural areas don’t have a choice about transport. They can’t just decide to stay home, they have to get around. If the cost of transport rises, they are forced to pay more. That triggered the gilets jaunes movement – an attack on car ownership.

The unspoken pact with the government – ‘we’ll live in isolated places but you’ll give us good roads and reasonable fuel price’ was broken. The gilets jaunes had massive support in what academics call the diagonale du vide – a wide corridor reaching from Meuse in the north-east to Landes in the south-west, which has a substantially lower population density than elsewhere in France.

A National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies’ map showing the length of car journey required to access a basket of services, including a tax office, post office, local tribunal, bank, etc, corresponded perfectly with the map of population density.

Statistics from November 2018 show that 61% of rural dwellers say they are very dependent on their cars (23% in Paris) and only 2% say they are not at all dependent (24% in Paris).

Running a car is expensive. According a 2018 report by the Automobile Club de France, taking into account depreciation, maintenance, insurance, fuel, and motorway tolls, to drive 18,000km a year in a Renault Clio costs €6,900 a year, rising to €9,600 for a Peugeot 308 diesel. This when the median average annual salary in communes with less than 10,000 inhabitants is €29,400. Only 9% of these households don’t have a car and 48% of households have two or more cars. So any increase in the cost of running them is sharply felt.

Why else did the gilets jaunes occupy roundabouts? And wear hi-vis vests? Because it was all about cars.

They weren’t necessarily the worst off but they were struggling, feeling that, if one thing went wrong, their finances would collapse. The government didn’t understand, and then multiple demands and gripes made any political synthesis impossible.

Immigration isn’t much of a concern in rural areas because these areas receive relatively few immigrants. The gilets jaunes have major practical preoccupations – it is mainly people living in the big cities who are personally affected by immigration.

It is classic that second generation immigrants are among the loudest voices calling for immigration control. The last one in closes the door, as they say in the States. Each immigrant wants to be the last because they feel that too many will turn the tide of opinion.

Look at New York. The WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) turned on the Irish, who turned on the Italians, who turned on the East Europeans and BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) people from the south.

In France, take the Nord-Pas-de-Calais as an example – a mainly working class region – many people are descended from Poles who arrived in the 1930s. It is one of the departments with the least immigrants and the most votes for Marine Le Pen.

But anti-immigration feeling exists among the native population too and statistics show that the fewer immigrants living in a commune, the more votes there will be for the Far Right. Forty per cent of votes in Haute Marne (where less than 2% of the population are immigrant) went to Le Pen. In Paris, where 17% of the population is immigrant, only 5% voted for Le Pen.

I argue that immigration is an economic benefit, not just in terms of what people contribute, but in terms of the fact that an immigrant’s home country has paid for their education and their health care. It costs on average about €3,000 per year to raise a child, which for 20 years is around €60,000. Getting a worker for free therefore is a big saving.

Looking at things logically, using the statistics, is the way to understand the reality. People in Paris simply say: “Well the métro is full of black people, they’re taking over, we’re being submerged.” In fact the figures show that France has taken in fewer immigrants than other EU states.

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