Lesson from the latest Yellow Vest protests in France

April 24, 2019 18:58
Yellow Vest protesters stage a demonstration in Paris on April 20 to remind the Macron government that it also needs to focus on improving the lives of the working class, and not just on rebuilding the Notre-Dame cathedral. Photo: Reuters

As the French government works aggressively to restore the fire-ravaged Notre-Dame cathedral, one of the unexpected consequences of the massive fund mobilization is that it has provided renewed momentum for the nation's anti-establishment Yellow Vest Movement.

Over the past weekend, some 9,000 Yellow Vest protesters took to the streets in Paris to voice their anger and demand an answer to a highly polemical question: why is the Emmanuel Macron government willing to spend massive amounts of money on rebuilding the cathedral but not on improving the lives of the poor?

Also getting caught in the firing line from protesters were French tycoons who have pledged more than a billion euros to the Notre-Dame rebuilding efforts soon after the catastrophic fire.

What makes the Yellow Vest protesters so angry is that while the French upper class and the administration are so generous in saving the medieval cathedral, they have been very stingy when it comes to redressing the wealth inequality problem in the nation.

Many Yellow Vest protesters slammed the tycoons as being hypocritical: they believe the true reason why the rich people and big companies are so eager to donate billions to the reconstruction efforts is that they would be getting juicy tax concessions.

Under the French law, firms which have donated money to charity are entitled to a tax concession of up to 60 percent.

As such, in the eyes of the Yellow Vest protesters, what rich people and big companies in their country did is simply dodge tax in the name of contributing to patriotic disaster relief.

Worse still, huge tax concessions could lead to declining government revenues, which means the Macron administration would have less money at its disposal in helping the underprivileged.

In our opinion, the French protesters may have got a bit confused about two fundamental concepts here. Rebuilding the Notre-Dame cathedral is one thing, while poverty alleviation is quite another.

Besides, being entitled to tax concessions as a result of making donations doesn’t necessarily equal exploiting poor people. Such a notion, if stretched, would deal a heavy blow to the philanthropic cause in general.

Like the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the United States back in 2008, the Yellow Vest protests in France have also been triggered by a popular sense of resentment against the super-rich.

Throughout history, the disparity between the rich and the poor has remained a perfect recipe for social unrest.

The same theme, in fact, would apply to Hong Kong as well, as the city is a place that has very serious income inequality.

Returning to France, it would certainly require a lot of wisdom and deft handling by Macron to resolve the controversies arising from his initiative to rebuild the Notre-Dame.

Meanwhile, the anger among the Yellow Vest protesters also sends a message to governments around the world that they cannot afford to ignore pressing social issues.

Authorities will need to take timely and appropriate action if they wish to prevent the simmering resentment among the underprivileged from boiling over onto the streets.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 23

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal