French politics is complicated, and I’d more or less sworn off discussing it, but recent events involving a new Eco-tax make the subject irresistible.
The Marxist historian E.P. Thompson once remarked that the British love affair with Europe was largely a matter of the middle classes’ new found taste for green peppers and aubergines. The affair is over, but the inhabitants of Eastern and Northern Europe have taken up the torch, and the autoroute which runs north from where I live in southern France is choked with lorries bearing Spanish fruit and veg to Estonians and Lithuanians who until recently had never seen a grapefruit. Most of the lorries are registered in Poland or Slovakia, and the drivers get Polish salaries and Polish social security benefits.
Naturally, French road haulage companies can’t compete. The foreign companies pay the fees for the autoroute to the private companies who own them, but the French state gets no benefit from this lucrative traffic.
(Some drivers prefer to leave the Autoroute to enjoy a stretch of the Route Nationale near here, where, besides the splendid landscapes, they can enjoy the sight of ladies, organised by teams of Rumanian entrepreneurs and dressed in a simple costume of high heels and a thong, plying their trade. I’m not sure if it gets a mention in “A Year in Provence” or the “Rough Guide to Southern France”, but the sight of a bare-breasted black lady emerging from between the vines on a summer afternoon gives one a satisfying sense that the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire hasn’t quite finished yet).
The French government of M. Sarkozy, realising that they’d missed a trick when they privatised the Autoroutes, decided to recoup some of the losses by taxing lorries that take the Routes Nationales, and, in 2011, passed a law taxing the mileage of heavy goods vehicles – labelled an Eco-tax, the ostensible purpose of which was to get traffic off the roads on to rail, an obvious nonsense when it comes to getting apricots to Lithuania before they rot in a siding.
They negotiated a contract with a company which was formed specifically for the purpose, owned 70% by an Italian motorway operator, who promised to install a system of spy cameras on major roads and a sophisticated computer system to collect the tax and administer fines. French laws don’t come into effect until a ministerial decree is signed, and this one was signed in May 2012, on the very day of the second round of the presidential elections, which M. Sarkozy lost to the Socialist candidate François Hollande. This decree engaged the new Italian company Ecomouv to install the cameras and computer system on a number of major roads, in return for which the French state agreed to pay the company 20 million euros per month, starting in January 2014.
Naturally, the new socialist government wasn’t going to turn its nose up at this law promising a useful source of revenue. After all, they voted for it, together with every single other party – except the Ecologists, who refused to vote it because it didn’t go far enough.
The system came into operation last week, but not everywhere. Not in Alsace, where local politicians are begging for such a system, since a similar tax in Germany has diverted German lorries off German Autobahns on to French A-roads. And not, curiously, on the main roads connecting France and Italy.
The agriculteurs in Brittany quickly realised that the tax would add a few centimes to the price of the cauliflowers they sent to Paris. The reaction of Parisian politicians was naturally: “What’s a few centimes on the price of a cauliflower? Ho ho.” (If any of them said: “Let them eat broccoli”, the fact is not recorded.) But a few centimes means the difference of life and death to a farmer or a haulage company in competition with Spanish produce transported in Polish lorries.
The Bretons took to the routes wearing the bonnets rouges of the Revolution, and burned down one of the gantries bearing the video cameras. Then they drove a mechanical shovel through the steel gates protecting the sous-préfecture of Morlaix and occupied it. (A préfecture or sous-préfecture is the official establishment of the national government in a regional capital. As if the Lord Lieutenant of the County had an official residence. Or, for Americans, as if Obama named fifty of his Chicago friends to maintain law and order in each state capital). Then they destroyed some more gantries, each of which costs about a million dollars.
The Bretons have a lot to be angry about. Brussels has just announced the end of export subsidies to Breton poultry farmers, who exported their cheap battery hens to the Middle East. A big abattoir has just gone bust, putting in danger the numerous factory farms producing cheap pigmeat. (Brittany’s rivers are heavily polluted with nitrates from pigshit, and the fines the French government pays to Brussels are a form of indirect subsidy to their farmers). Now a Norwegian-owned salmon producer has just announced the closure of two factories in Brittany.
Taken aback by the ferocity of the reaction, the government has just announced the indefinite suspension of the tax. But they are bound by contract to pay Ecomouv 20 million euros a month, starting in January, or suspend the contract at the cost of 800 million euros (about a billion dollars). Not bad compensation for a private company valued at 25 million dollars, which has laid out a couple of hundred million in investment in material (presumably insured) which is being every day burned to the ground by angry demonstrators.
Handing billions of euros of guaranteed profit to a foreign-owned private company , and signing the contract on the day you’re voted out of power is not an everyday occurrence, even in France, and questions are being asked. To their great credit, it is deputés (MPs) of the Ecology Party who are at the forefront of the demands for parliamentary and judicial enquiries.
The Ecology Party is only represented in parliament because of the peculiar French political system. Most ecologists consider themselves to be on the left (though in recent local elections here there were three separate lists of ecology candidates, one left, one right, and one protesting against the political left-right division).
At the last presidential election, the Ecology Party had the choice between a candidate who fronts a major TV show on protecting the environment (a sort of younger, sexier David Attenborough) and who was credited with 10-15% of the vote, and a retired magistrate who wears red-rimmed glasses and speaks French with a strong Norwegian accent. Naturally, they chose the magistrate, who, naturally, scored the normal vote for an Ecology candidate – 3%.
The losing ecologist candidate naturally recommended her electors to vote socialist in the second round of the presidential election, and the newly elected socialist president naturally pressured 18 socialist parliamentary candidates in safe seats into standing down in favour of ecology candidates.
The result is not all bad, as you can see, since there are at least 18 supporters of the current government who are willing to dig into what looks like a major political scandal, however damaging it may turn out to be for the government they support. (Note: these 18 MPs belong to “Europe Ecology – the Greens”, who have nothing to do with “France Ecology”, or “the Movement of Independent Ecologists”, or “Ecology Generation”).
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I haven’t mentioned attitudes to climate change in this article, not because it isn’t important, but because it doesn’t really figure in the political debate. Electricité de France produces 80% of the country’s energy from nuclear. They can afford to bear the cost of a few thousand windmills because French nuclear is so cheap compared to the energy cost in neighbouring countries. (Costs of decommissioning are not taken into account, but Carpe Diem, n’est-ce pas?)
That said, I watched a two hour debate on the main French public TV channel last Friday, ostensibly about climate change, (though, in order not to make viewers switch off, they started with a discussion of the crisis in the Brittany pork industry, centred round a novel called “180 Days” about the life of a factory-raised pig).
But eventually we got a real face-to-face between a French Bob Ward and François Gervais, a Professor of Physics who has just published a book called “The Innocence of Carbon”.
Also present was science historian Christophe Bonneil who, with Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, has just published a book called “the Anthropocene Event”. Fressoz teaches History of Science at Imperial College London, where Alice Bell, also a specialist in the history of science, taught until recently. A paper by these two was the subject of an interesting article at Ruth Dixon’s blog
Bonneil, in his violet scarf and yellow jeans, gave a convincing impression of someone who wanted to push the sales of his book before the Anthropocene comes to a nasty end, and added little to the debate.
The point is that France 2, the French national channel, is able to admit the possibility of such a debate, however limited in scope and nullified by the total incompetence of the programme presenter. The BBC, with its proud traditions of seriousness and impartiality, wouldn’t let Bob Ward within yapping distance of, say, Andrew Montford. (And where would we find a university professor willing to announce his disagreement with the consensus? It’s easy to mock the European intellectual élite for their pretentiousness, but at least they maintain a crrtain respect for the opposing point of view).
Which brings us back to the Breton destroyers of Italian-owned gantries equipped with cameras for spying on the purveyors of French (Breton) cauliflowers towards the French capital. France 2, besides giving a space – however tiny – to a professor willing to defy the consensus, gives quite a large and sympathetic space to the wreckers of million-euro spy cameras on the movements of French (Breton) caulilfowers.
There’s hope for the anti-big brother, anti-European Union movement, and there’s hope for the movement against trans-European corruption of normal political process.
And sometimes, the hope comes from the actions of MPs who call themselves Ecologists.