What should Canada learn from France’s violent fuel price protests ?

In Canada, they are being closely watched — with a hint of glee, perhaps — by those who see a parallel between Macron’s fuel tax and Trudeau’s carbon tax

Photo : JEFF MCINTOSH/THE CANADIAN PRESS

 

After weeks of protests that saw tens of thousands of people in the streets, culminating in the worst rioting Paris has seen in a decade, the French government backed down Tuesday and promised to delay a fuel tax hike slated for January.

President Emmanuel Macron had previously insisted that the tax increase would go ahead. But Macron was under growing pressure to calm the “gilets jaunes” protests, particularly after the weekend, when rioters torched cars, burned buildings, looted stores and scrawled graffiti on the Arc de Triomphe.

In Canada, the protests are being closely watched — with a hint of glee, perhaps — by those who see a parallel between Macron’s fuel tax and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax, to be applied next year to provinces that don’t have their own carbon price in place.

“The massive opposition to ever higher carbon taxes is what happens when ordinary people are pushed into energy poverty by political elites,” Alberta United Conservative Leader Jason Kenney tweeted Sunday, quickly following up to say he doesn’t condone the violence.

But are there really similarities between the situations in France and Canada? The answer, it seems, is sort of — but only sort of.

Are the French protesting a carbon tax?

Yes and no.

The “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) protests began as demonstrations against a planned increase in the tax on vehicle fuel, a measure designed to help France meet its commitment to cut carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2030. Macron had already increased the fuel tax this year by 11 cents per litre for diesel and six cents for gasoline, and was planning a further increase of 10 cents per litre for diesel and four cents for gasoline in January.

Drivers say they’re being taxed to the limit, and low- and middle-income families in rural areas are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden. So, starting in November, they took to the streets wearing the fluorescent yellow vests that all drivers must carry in their cars.

But resentment over the fuel tax is just one symptom of something much larger. The protests today are amorphous, attracting people from both sides of the political spectrum. The demonstrators are angry about rising taxes and falling purchasing power more broadly, about Macron’s tax cuts for the wealthy, and about a feeling that the government is out of touch with everyday people.

Photo : AFP/Getty Images

How similar is France’s carbon tax to Canada’s?

Not very.

France’s fuel tax is already nearly $67 per tonne of carbon emissions, and expected to rise to nearly $130 per tonne in 2022. In contrast, Canada’s federal carbon tax will kick in at $20 per tonne in 2019, rising to $50 per tonne in 2022.

There’s also an important difference in how the revenue is to be used. While Trudeau has promised 90 per cent of the revenue will be returned to households as rebates, Macron is using the money to tackle the national debt.

In France, taxes account for about 64 per cent of the price of gasoline, while in Canada, taxes make up 25 to 40 per cent of the pump price, depending on the province, according to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

The French have also experienced a 23-per-cent increase in the price of fuel over the last year, to an average of nearly $2.30 per litre, though Macron says much of that is due to world oil prices.

Still, the principle of the two policies is the same. “Remember, that’s where we’re going. If we’re actually going to hit our Paris targets … the gas prices are heading to where they are in France,” said Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Could we see protests like this in Canada?

Probably not.

It’s not that Canadians never protest. But our protests, when they do happen, generally have a milder flavour. When Trudeau travelled to Calgary last month, for instance, about 2,000 protesters shut down part of the downtown core to demand he do more to support the energy sector, chanting “Build that pipe!” in a menacing sort of way.

“We need pipelines,” read one large banner. “Bill C-69 is an absolutely devastating piece of legislation,” read another, referring to the Liberals’ contentious environmental assessment bill. It wasn’t quite the same as tens of thousands of French protesters blocking roads and building barricades.

So it’s hard to imagine the clouds of tear gas that have obscured the Arc de Triomphe wafting around Parliament Hill, or the Trudeau government backing down on its carbon tax because of rioting in the streets. After all, Canadians mostly only light cars on fire over the Stanley Cup.

Still, that’s not to say carbon tax protests couldn’t have any impact in Canada. Wudrick said he was surprised at how many protesters showed up in Calgary. “I think it’s fair to say that if that many people had mobilized in Ottawa on a different issue, the government would be a lot more seized with it than they are.”

So what lessons should Canada learn?

Whether or not Canadians organize major protests of the Liberals’ carbon tax, there’s still a “pretty strong parallel” between what’s happening in France and how people are feeling in Canada, Wudrick said. He pointed to similarities between the urban-rural divide in Canada and France, and a similar sense among rural voters that they’re being unfairly targeted.

“At the end of the day, if you really want to see how strongly people are committed to the idea of fighting climate change, ask them if they’re willing to pay twice as much for gas,” he said.

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