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3 reasons France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests are moral (and 2 reasons they’re not)

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French highways found themselves clogged with indignation during the fifth week of the gilets jaunes (“yellow vest”) protests. How should Christians think about these demonstrations? Are their means and ends moral or immoral?

Background

The leaderless grassroots uprising originally targeted the massive carbon taxes levied on gasoline and diesel in order to reduce carbon emissions and “nudge” the public to purchase electric vehicles. French environmentalist policy caused gasoline costs to rise as high as $7 a gallon in Paris. Fully 60 percent of that was due to federal taxes, with another tax increase due next year.Hundreds of thousands of people blocked intersections across France, some holding signs that read, “Death to taxes.” Over time political leaders including Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen have tried to infiltrate or capitalize on the protests, which have taken a most comprehensively anti-Macron tenor.

French President Emmanuel Macron initially promised he would “not change course,because the policy direction is right and necessary.” However, the fuel tax hike scheduled for 2019 has been delayed (but not canceled). Macron unveiled an economic package – including a €100-a-month increase in the minimum wage and abolition of taxes on pensioners – worth €15 billion ($17 billion U.S.) in a televised address last Monday.

Although the number of protesters has steadily decreased to a low of 66,000 last weekend, the citizens uprising has spurred politicians to action, extracted concessions from seemingly immovable politicians, and spawned imitators across the Atlantic Ocean.  

There are at least three reasons their actions are moral, and two reasons to say their actions raise moral concerns.

Why the gilets jaunes/”yellow vest” protests are moral:

1. Putting families first is the government’s duty. The initial protests erupted over the fact that fuel costs caused already squeezed French families to choose between transportation and other necessities. Similar policies elsewhere have separated families, because one of the parents cannot afford to commute regularly. “The family is the original cell of social life,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Emphasis in original.) As such, its needs come before the policy aims of the government. “The importance of the family for the life and well-being of society entails a particular responsibility for society to support and strengthen marriage and the family,” the Catechism continues.“Civil authority should consider it a grave duty ‘to acknowledge the true nature of marriage and the family, to protect and foster them, to safeguard public morality, and promote domestic prosperity.’” By demanding that the state yield to the needs of the family, the yellow vests also advanced a form of subsidiarity.

2. Opposing misguided policies exercises good citizenship. Standing up against excessive taxation shows that the French are exercising their moral duty as citizens to assure the common good. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that citizens’ “loyal collaboration” with elected officials “includes the right, and at times the duty, to voice their just criticisms of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of the community.”

3. Making their voice heard inside an imperious government. President Macron styles himself a “Jupiterian” leader untouched by the entreaties of mere mortals. He has since admitted his tone – and his tone-deaf words – have alienated his administration from the people it serves. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe confessed the government has “not listened enough to the French people.” As I told Spero News, the gilets jaunes protests are “another example of the disconnect between elite politicians using government to enforce extremist ideologies, and average working people who have to pay the price.” When that happens, the people must make their voices heard. “It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom,” the Catechism states. (Emphasis in original.)There is no question the yellow vests succeeded in capturing the attention of the government and the imagination of overtaxed people across the world.

Why the gilets jaunes/“yellow vest” protests raise moral concerns:

1. Their methods are disobedient and potentially dangerous. The yellow vests block intersections as a form of proportional response: If we cannot drive, neither will anyone else. This method raises moral concerns. First, citizens owe the government “the duty of obedience,” provided the law is not objectively immoral, and French traffic laws are certainly not immoral. Second, the protests have resulted in eightdeaths so far. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said the seventh death was a woman struck by a vehicle that entered an unmarked protest area. Last September, a Vatican official stated that “the primary responsibility of the State [is] to protect public order, social harmony, and the life and security of persons and their families as well as their property.” Third,the illegal protests have the foreseeable consequence of diverting police from their duty to protect others. French police say they are stretched thin by guardingthe protests and providing additional security at Christmas markets, like the one targeted by a deadly terrorist attack in Strasbourg. Methods that break the law, disrupt public order, or endanger people’s lives raise moral and prudential concerns.

2. The movement’s other demands show both good and poor citizenship. The yellow vest protesters, originally motivated by backlash against high taxes, have issued a list of demands that include higher taxes. Acton’s Sam Gregg has written a thoughtful analysis of the economic paradoxes (a less charitable commentator might use the term contradictions) typical of the movement and the wider French public. While some of the protesters’ broader goals reflect praiseworthy insights, others –like the right to retire as young as 55 – will harm the economic well-being of the nation as a whole, imposing heavy burdens on generations to come. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church defines citizenship as “a duty to be fulfilled consciously by all, with responsibility and with a view to the common good.” God requires that we serve Him in every capacity of our lives – family, church, work, and state – to the utmost of our ability. If citizens convince the government to adopt misguided policies, particularly at the threat of violence, it would constitute poor stewardship of their status and thus potentially raise a moral concern.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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