Putting the Gilets Jaunes protests into context

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By Ross Douglas, Founder & CEO, Autonomy

The Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) have just had their third week of protests in the streets of Paris, where I live and work. The movement initially started as a protest against a six cents per litre diesel tax but has since spiraled into a more general opposition against the current administration, continuing even after the tax was scrapped.

As a foreign entrepreneur dedicated to reducing combustion cars, I’ve been fascinated and concerned by this story. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to meet regularly with startups, VCs, big corporations, city officials and French policymakers. I would like nothing more than to see France prove to conservatives in Britain and America that profit and social progress are not antithetical.

Macron and his ‘Make Our Planet Great Again coup

When President Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Macron was quick to seize initiative with his ‘Make Our Planet Great Again’ campaign. He attracted scientists to France and got behind the massive One Planet Summit (December 2017) that gathered Hollywood celebrities, big business and world leaders. The event was a masterstroke in French soft power, with Macron hosting the world’s most powerful leaders and personalities including Branson, Bloomberg, Schwarzenegger and John Kerry. With Trump having gone rogue and Theresa May bogged down with Brexit, he looked like the leader of the thinking world.

Our event, Autonomy & The Urban Mobility Summit, is dedicated to the future of sustainable urban mobility. So this was good timing for us. I was looking forward to businesses choosing Paris to build and fund sustainable solutions for a warming world.

A year later and the Gilets Jaunes are protesting and looting in the streets of Paris, calling for Macron’s resignation. Trump has not let the moment pass, chiming in with some cutting tweets. And, 2018 is set to be a record year for carbon emissions.

What has gone wrong?

Still awaiting the Green Tech Revolution

Macron created En Marche as a bottom-up movement that would gather the opinions and input of ordinary citizens. A few months before the election in April 2017, my Paris-based lawyer asked if I would contribute to an informal En Marche think tank on the green economy and green jobs. The prescient question posed was: how can we create new jobs in rural areas, where traditional jobs are under threat?

Macron’s idea is to energise the French economy by attracting foreign talent and investment. He believes France’s economy is too reliant on big, old, established companies that move slowly, have low growth and are vulnerable to disruption. As an ex-banker he knows that the world is awash with cash looking for a decent return. He sees a golden opportunity for France to attract investment and lead in the green tech revolution: profit and social progress combining to create a richer country and a better world.

His efforts have had mixed results. The startup scene in Paris is stronger thanks to him, with initiatives like the massive business incubator Station F and the annual event VivaTech. But French startups are usually absorbed by big established companies and therefore do not create the jobs and revenue of their American and Chinese equivalents. BlaBlaCar, one of the few French Unicorns, recently received a 100 million Euro investment from SNCF. As part of the deal they have to take over SNCF’s bus service OuiBus, which lost 36 million Euros last year. Compare this to Uber and Lyft’s planned IPOs at $120 and $15 billion respectively and you can understand the president’s challenge.

The true cost of diesel

In the early 90s Europe, like much of the rest of the world, were not big on diesel for commuting. The diesel fleet was under 10% and Europeans chose small petrol cars that were cheap to run, easy to maintain and small enough to park in the narrow streets. The 1997 Kyoto protocol instructed Europe to reduce carbon emissions and other dangerous greenhouse gases by 8%. In a bitter irony European automakers used this as an opportunity to lobby Brussels for diesel subsidies, citing the fact that diesel emits slightly less CO2 than petrol. But they did not tell Brussels that diesel emits four times the levels of nitrogen oxides, a contributor to millions of premature deaths worldwide. If there was ever a moment for Europe to lead a green tech revolution, it was then. Instead they chose 19th century technology to fix a 21st century problem. To add to the failure, any potential CO2 savings were squandered as motorists switched from small petrol cars to bigger diesel SUVs.

Twenty years later the world has woken up to the horrific damage of diesel pollutants. Cities continue to ban them from their streets starting in 2020 as the European motor industry prepares for the costly business of scrapping production lines. Unfortunately, most of the country’s motorists are stuck with an old fleet of diesel cars that are expensive to maintain and quick to depreciate. They also don’t have the purchasing power to switch to electric vehicles, as most people in rural areas earn around the median annual wage of €22 000.

This is why people reacted so emotionally to Macron’s diesel tax. Motorists underestimate the fixed costs of car ownership by as much as 50%. In France the average cost of car ownership is €500 per month, of which 70% are fixed and include depreciation, maintenance and taxes. This is a massive part of an average family’s budget and while diesel contributes a small part of the cost, it is the most visible one.

City-dwellers have mobility options, those in the countryside must rely on car ownership.

Autonomy is working with a large corporation on this very challenge. Preliminary research shows that it’s not only about access to mobility services, but also about infrastructure. Paris can spend €150 million on its bike plan, which aims to boost bike’s modal share in the capital, thus reducing cars. However, in the suburbs or more rural areas outside of Paris, it’s still impossible to safely ride for two kilometers because cars are cruising at high speeds one meter away cyclists.

For years, personal car ownership has been the go-to solution for urban sprawl and rural remoteness. Thankfully, things are starting to change. There is now growing political will to use data analytics, and other tech developments, to leverage current infrastructure (including personal cars). Solutions that optimise existing car fleets, e.g. ride-sharing platforms and peer-to-peer car-sharing like Drivy, must also be encouraged while the arrival of autonomous electric shuttles from Navya and EasyMile will provide excellent fixed route solutions for villages. All of these solutions can contribute to creating a smart rural transport system that encourages active mobility and reduces costs and emissions while freeing residents from the need to own a car and giving them greater autonomy in choosing how they move around.

Where do we go from here?

When the streets are burning and Donald Trump is smirking it’s easy to lose faith in the French way of doing things. As an outsider, one steeped in the ways of the English-speaking world, I’ve been at turns perplexed and impressed by France’s socialist model. But in our globalised, digitised world political ideology has given way to interest politics. It’s up to good leaders to frame our challenges in terms that bind disparate interests to a common cause. Clearly, a cleaner environment and cheaper mobility is an ultimate win-win. I hope Macron can tap into that spirit of progress and shared purpose to resolve this impasse and position France as a leader in green solutions.