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As French Protests Grow, Media’s Climate Focus Shrinks

By Kalev Leetaru

The so-called “yellow vest” protests that have roiled France over the past month have turned iconic areas of Paris into war zones as more than a quarter-million demonstrators have flooded the streets. While the protests have morphed into a platform to air an ever-growing number of grievances, they began in part as a rejection of French President Emmanuel Macron’s new fuel tax intended to combat climate change. However, as the protests have spawned some of the worst violence in half a century, media coverage has focused less and less on their origins.

Held each weekend since Nov. 17, the protests’ warlike imagery has captivated the public. The timeline below shows the percentage of worldwide online news coverage in the 65 languages monitored by the GDELT Project that mentioned the protests. Media coverage has steadily grown and Macron’s flurry of concessions last week kept the protests in the news throughout the week.

In contrast, the timeline below shows the percentage of these protest-related articles that also mentioned either “global warming” or “climate change” in reference to the fossil energy fuel tax that helped spur the demonstrations. Mentions peaked between the second and third weekends as the international press dissected the origins of the unrest and their implications for other countries considering carbon taxes to combat climate change. Yet, as the total volume of coverage has increased, the percentage associating the protests’ origins with climate change have steadily decreased.

Notably, the connection of the protests to the fuel tax was already declining by the time of President Trump’s Dec. 8 tweetstorm  using the protests to criticize carbon taxes and Macron’s stance as a climate crusader.

Indeed, Macron has made climate change a personal priority, positioning himself as a global leader on environmental issues. The timeline below shows the percentage of worldwide online news coverage of Macron since the first week of the protests that also mentioned “climate change” or “global warming.” The protests appear to have focused attention on his climate stance, especially the political liabilities of embracing this position during an economic downturn. Even here, though, mentions of climate change are fading.

Putting this all together, as news coverage of the Paris protests has ramped up, discussion of the protests’ origins as a rejection of climate change taxes has rapidly faded. In part this may be due to the evolution of the protests into a broader rejection of the direction of French society and airing of grievances ranging from the economic divide to education reforms. At the same time, the timing of the rapid climate deemphasis as the protests have grown larger and more violent suggests media outlets are also not keen to draw negative scrutiny to environmental efforts. In the end, we are reminded that media outlets strongly shape our understanding of stories through the choices they make in framing them.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.