At first glance, the worker-demonstrators wearing emergency yellow vests and protesting for economic equity on the streets of Paris seem to have little in common with the schoolchildren all over Europe skipping class to protest against climate change. But despite divides in age and economic status, they may be motivated by similar underlying concerns, according to officials with both the French and Belgian churches.
This Friday, March 15, will be an important day for both movements. A nationwide series of debates suggested by French President Emmanuel Macron, where local political leaders listen to voters’ complaints and suggestions, will come to a close so that the federal government can hammer out a response, and French schoolchildren are expected to participate in what is being called a Global Youth Strike.
Grégoire Catta, S.J., director of the National Service for Family and Society at the French Bishops’ Conference, believes the church can deliver a “deep diagnosis” to respond to the contemporary anxieties expressed by these movements. The key would be filtering them through Catholic social teaching and, in particular, Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical “Laudato Si’.”
Grégoire Catta, S.J.: The church can deliver a “deep diagnosis” to respond to the contemporary anxieties expressed by these movements.
The “Yellow Vest” demonstrations gained force last November and have not stopped. In Paris, the grassroots movement began as outrage against higher fuel taxes, but it has evolved into a broad demand from outlying and rural communities in France for more participative democracy and social justice. Eleven people have died during the protests, and thousands of others have been injured or arrested.
The movement is named after the high-visibility clothing worn by demonstrators. French law requires drivers to keep the safety gear handy in case of accidents, but protesters have found the yellow vests to be a convenient and unifying call to arms because of their association with working-class industries.
A few weeks after the Yellow Vests took to the streets, thousands of schoolchildren throughout Europe and other countries around the world began walking out of classes each week to pressure politicians into adopting more ambitious policies to tackle climate change.
“The ecological issue is linked to the social issue,” Father Catta, who has been involved in local and national discussions with the Yellow Vests, told America. “It is clear that something is wrong, and the pope invites us to change our paradigm.” Father Catta sees in these movements a rejection of consumerism, which is a theme at the heart of “Laudato Si’.”
“It is clear that something is wrong, and the pope invites us to change our paradigm” by rejecting consumerism.
People are pressured to buy and consume, he said, but purchasing power is dwindling and unmoderated consumption leads to pollution. “It gives rise to the destruction of the earth, on the one hand, and then the destruction of people on the other,” Father Catta added, because “people feel invisible when they are unable to consume.” One response: The Yellow Vests have called protests to block shoppers at big supermarkets in an attempt to hurt the companies’ profits.
Protestors from both movements are demanding that governments listen to their fears about the future. “There is a very deep anguish in the elderly as well in the middle classes; they are afraid of falling into poverty,” Marcel Rémon, S.J., told America. Father Rémon is the director of CERAS, the Center for Research and Social Action in Paris.
Father Rémon said that young people face an unstable job market, as long-term employment contracts have become rare, at the same time they worry about the environment. “They say, ‘When I’ll be 50, the earth will be [ruined],’” he added.
The young climate demonstrators are thought to come from more affluent families than the older workers of the Yellow Vest movement.
However, he warned against conflating the two movements. “We should not be naïve,” Father Catta said, as there are “tensions” between the two because of generational and class differences. The young climate demonstrators are thought to come from more affluent families than the older workers of the Yellow Vest movement.
And while the young marching for environmental protection can clearly find common ground with the plea to care for the earth in “Laudato Si’,” the Yellow Vests marked their first success when the French government backtracked on a fuel tax hike, which hit people hardest outside urban centers. The tax hike was seen as part of an effort to reduce carbon emissions, in accordance with the Paris Accord to minimize climate change.
But Frédéric Rottier, president of the Belgian Jesuit association Centre Avec, said the Yellow Vests are not necessarily at odds with environmentalism. As governments pursue ways to transition to greener policies, “we need to make sure the ecological transition is [economically] sustainable,” he said. “The weight of it needs to be appropriately distributed.”
In Belgium, where most workers are unionized, the Yellow Vest movement lost steam when traditional unions organized a nationwide strike. By shutting or slowing down hospitals, airports and public transit, the Belgian unions pressured employers to increase wages—and succeeded. “It shows that in the end, it is better when unions take matters into their own hands,” the Most Rev. Jean Pierre Delville, the bishop of Liege, Belgium, told America.
In France, unions and the church are struggling to understand and respond to the demands of the Yellow Vests. Bishops called on local parishes to hold discussions so that members can discuss their troubles and listen to each other according to Catholic social teaching principles.
“It’s rather a new phenomenon in the church,” Father Rémon said. “It’s not every day that bishops ask parishioners to talk about social issues.” The talks are being held within the government-led “Great National Debate” launched by President Macron.
However, the church has a long way to go to recover legitimacy here in the wake of the global sexual abuse crisis. The church needs to “listen again to God’s people and strengthen the culture of debate and dialogue,” Father Rémon said.