RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
France's president, Emmanuel Macron, spoke today, trying to ease tensions after a weekend of violent protests left a trail of smashed windows and broken pavement on one of the main shopping streets in Paris. The protesters call themselves the yellow vest movement, named for the fluorescent safety vests they wear. They're demanding that Macron drop a tax hike on gas and diesel fuel. He says the tax is key to creating a green economy. The protesters have no leader, but they've posed one of the most serious challenges yet to Macron's pro-business economy. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joins us now from Paris.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So tell me more about this movement. I mean, how does a movement about a gas tax create a political crisis as it has?
BEARDSLEY: Exactly. Well, you know, I'd like you to listen to this one protester who's out this morning at a roadblock. Listen to him.
JEAN JOURDAIN: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: OK. His name is Jean Jourdain (ph). He says, "we're waiting for concrete action from Macron." He says, "we are sick of the government pitting the French people worried about the end of the world with people like us, who are just worried about the end of the month." He says, "we're living on debt and credit, we can't make ends meet, and the end of the month comes 12 times a year."
Rachel, that basically sums it up. There are two Frances. There are the better-off people who live in the cities who can afford to think about climate change and then those living in the rural areas, the small towns - you know, a lot of blue-collar workers. They can't make ends meet, and this is where the movement came from. It rose up from the French heartland.
MARTIN: So interesting. So the people who aren't in the cities necessarily are saying, hey, climate change may be a problem, but it's just not something that we can deal with 'cause we're just trying to put food on the table.
BEARDSLEY: Exactly, exactly.
MARTIN: So how is Macron dealing with this?
BEARDSLEY: Well - you know what? - as we speak, he is still speaking about it. And here is a clip of him talking through an interpreter.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Through interpreter) We must listen to the protesters, but we must not do so by renouncing responsibilities for today and tomorrow because there is also an environmental challenge.
BEARDSLEY: So Macron basically says - you know, these plans for this ecological transition for the country to get off of fossil fuels and to have a green economy were laid a long time ago and if France doesn't make that transition now, it's only going to become harder. And the speech he's making today is a big speech that was planned for a long time. He's actually outlining the country's blueprint for its energy future through 2028. For example, he's also announced the closure of 14 nuclear reactors by 2035.
But Macron also says he doesn't want this energy transition to, you know, a green economy to create a two-speed France, one of the rich and the poor. So he is expected to offer things like zero percent loans for buying new, cleaner cars and cash bonuses for changing the windows in your house.
MARTIN: Is that going to make a difference? I mean, is that what these people want?
BEARDSLEY: Well, Rachel, no one really knows yet. But oftentimes Macron is accused of being lofty and idealist and disconnected from the lives of ordinary French people. So if he comes across like that today, it's not going to be good. Also, Rachel, analysts have been saying that this movement was set off by the latest gas tax, but it's been a long time coming. It's very deep-seated. It's very widespread and disparate. It's leaderless, difficult to control. So how do you stop it? So you know, the protesters say if they don't get what they want, they will be out in Paris protesting again on Sunday.
MARTIN: All right, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley for us.
Eleanor, thanks so much we appreciate it.
BEARDSLEY: Thanks Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIEN TELLIER SONG, "LOOK")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.