GRASS IS ACTUALLY GREENER

The list of demands by France’s yellow vest protesters would be the envy of many US workers

Marianne?
Marianne?
Image: Reuters / Benoit Tessier
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For the past two weeks, a massive protest movement known as the “yellow vests” has shaken France. While the movement began as a way for low-income people to voice their anger at the government’s efforts to target car pollution with a heavy carbon tax, it has now spiraled into an ongoing, at-times violent expression of general dissatisfaction with president Emmanuel Macron, as well as France’s political system and labor laws.

This was evident on Tuesday (Nov. 27), when two yellow vest representatives, Eric Drouet and Priscillia Ludosky, met with France’s minister of ecology François de Rugy, and presented him with a list of demands (link in French) that far exceed the movement’s original scope. Amongst other things, they called for the elimination of the French Senate (which some politicians have also called for, saying the upper chamber does not represent the French population), a reduction in the salary of elected representatives, and more frequent public consultations through national and local referendums, as well as a reform of the asylum application process and an end to the government’s fiscal austerity policy.

But many of the group’s demands have to do with what they view as unacceptable infringements upon their labor rights. To many workers overseas, and especially in the US, some of the demands might seem difficult to fathom. Here are a few examples:

Increase the minimum wage

France’s pre-tax minimum wage (link in French) is €1,498.47 ($1,701.80) a month, for a work week of 35 hours, or roughly $11.22 an hour. In the US, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour and has not budged since 2009. A US employee working the same number of hours as a French worker (35 hours per week) would make $1,100 per month. (Minimum wage laws vary across US states, with some cities like Seattle offering $15 an hour.)

Enforce pay equality in the workplace

According to the US Census Bureau, women working full-time, year round, earned 80% of what their male counterparts earned in 2017. In France, according to the European Commission, that number is 84.8%. Macron has made the fight for gender equality the centerpiece of his administration (paywall), and has committed to reducing the gender pay gap through a set of measures, including sanctioning companies that pay men and women differently. Protestors would have him do more (link in French) but haven’t specified what, exactly.

Increase public subsidies for hiring young employees

French employers who hire workers between 16 and 25 years old on a short-term, full-time, or apprenticeship contract, receive a government subsidy to help offset the costs of healthcare, pensions, and other social welfare contributions, which are unusually large (paywall) in France. The government is willing to give subsidies, tax credits, and tax exemptions worth as much as €7,000 to incentivize companies to hire young people. Previous French governments have offered to pay up to 75% of young workers’ salaries for up to three years (paywall).

The US has no specific tax incentive policy at the federal level for companies that hire young people, though some companies can qualify for a Work Opportunity Tax Credit of up to $1,200 for hiring 16 to 17 year old summer workers who reside in an Empowerment Zone or Rural Renewal County. (Some states, including New York, have put in place their own incentives for hiring youth workers.)

Reduce all taxes

That one doesn’t require much explanation, but context is key. The average French worker pays more taxes than the average American worker—according to the Tax Foundation, average US wage earners have a total tax burden of 31.7% of their pretax earnings, versus 37.3% for the average French wage earner. Nonetheless, the taxes French workers pay go towards funding relatively generous state pensions, free universal healthcare, one of the world’s best public health systems, and inexpensive public education. That’s not the case across the board in the US.

These demands highlight how the “yellow vest” movement, which began as a way to protest rising fuel prices, has expanded to cover a range of recriminations, from gender inequality to labor rights and democratic norms, so sprawling that it is unlikely Macron’s government can respond satisfactorily. French prime minister Edouard Philippe has announced (link in French) he will meet with the movement leaders tomorrow (Nov. 30), but analysts say they don’t expect either side to budge. The yellow vests have already called for further protests on Saturday.