German Gilets Jaunes Have a Case, Too

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Can the yellow vest, that symbol of French anti-elite protest, travel? Well, it’s clearly not as internationally ubiquitous as the red flag of class struggle was some 100 years ago, but most of the 700 people who demonstrated in Stuttgart on Saturday were wearing yellow security vests.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chosen successor, has said she sees no room in Germany for a “Yellow Vest” movement like the French one – both left- and right-wingers have tried to adopt the symbol but failed. In reality, however, Germans have some of the same reasons to complain as the original French Yellow Vests.

It’s easy to forget why the increasingly marginalized French protesters wear the high visibility garments: The original protesters were car owners. The mass rallies were initially directed against government policies many felt were unfairly targeting less well-to-do drivers -- environmentally-motivated fuel tax increases, draconian fines for traffic violations (France is one of the few European countries where a driver can even go to prison for speeding) and the lowering of the speed limit on country roads. Given France’s relatively high unemployment, real estate prices that prevent many from living close to their jobs, and underfunded public transportation in many areas, it’s easy to conclude the government either has it in for poor people who drive or doesn’t understand their plight. 

One worry is the diesel driving bans many cities are introducing or preparing to introduce. Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), the environmental organization, has pushed for the bans in the courts, using substandard air quality as the reason to overrule city authorities even when they resist. Some 1.3 million cars with older diesel engines that are currently in use are affected, and the German government isn’t doing anything for their owners. It has moaned about the bans but has been unable to stop them, and it hasn’t moved to force car producers to bring these older cars’ nitrogen oxide emissions into compliance with modern norms at no cost to the drivers. 

In Stuttgart, the local Yellow Vests carried signs calling the driving ban “confiscatory.” Since Jan. 1, cars complying with the pre-2006 Euro-4 emissions standard are banned from entering downtown Stuttgart. Starting in April, city residents won’t be able to drive such cars, either, and the pre-2011 Euro-5 standard will be outlawed by the fall.

The average age of a car on German roads is 9.1 years, almost the same as in France. Obviously, it’s the less wealthy who drive the older cars; many of them can’t afford newer ones. At one rally in Munich last month, a yellow vest-wearing protester held up a sign that read, “If you can no longer afford a VW diesel, buy an electric Porsche” – a  play on the “Let them eat cake” theme.

As in France, protesters against driving bans organize through Facebook. The group dedicated to fighting the ban in Stuttgart only counts some 3,500 supporters, not many for a city of more than 600,000, but there’s potential for growth as more bans hit. Equal numbers of Germans support and condemn the diesel restrictions, and many from both groups are angry that the government isn’t doing enough both for drivers and for the environment. 

Germany is a traditionally car-crazy nation. It has by far the biggest fleet of cars in Europe but a smaller fleet of buses than Poland, Italy, France or the U.K. The growing contradiction between environmental awareness and the interests of car owners is an underrated cause for conflict in the German society.

Now, the DUH has started a campaign to lower speed limits – to 120 kilometers per hour (75 mph) on the autobahns and 80 km on country roads. A commission on the future of mobility, put together by the government, also recommends autobahn speed limits (there are none at all on large portions of Germany’s famed highway system today) and higher fuel taxes to cut emissions. While a small majority of Germans supports a speed limit of 130 kph, many would be unhappy to give up a longstanding source of German pride, and others would face noticeably longer commutes. Some five percent of the German workforce take an hour or more to get to work, and more than half of them drive rather than use public transportation. 

Germany’s car culture may well be a little obsolete, just as the German car industry has been relatively slow to market hybrids and electric cars. But, like in France, the conflict between lofty environmental goals and the needs of ordinary people isn’t so much about culture as about the fundamental question of how seriously governments should take the mobility needs of people who can’t afford to change cars every couple of years – and for whom that electric Porsche will always be out of reach. One way to help them without hurting the environment would be too get the car industry to pick up a greater portion of the bill for their past sins against proper engine testing.

The yellow vest, despite sightings in many countries, probably has no future as the symbol of an international political movement, if only because ordinary people are quite sensitive to politicians’ efforts to exploit the creativity of genuine grassroots protest. The Stuttgart protesters refused to let any and all party representatives speak at their rally. But when people feel their freedom of movement is being restricted, when they sense the government is telling them they’re too poor to drive, they’ll put on those yellow vests to reference their car ownership. Whether they’ll burn and loot, as in France, or march peacefully as in Germany to date, their plight should be taken into account.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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