French fare-dodgers get organized

The Parisians who flooded the streets of France's capital city this morning -- part of a countrywide push-back against President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposed austerity plan (which includes, among other simply intolerable measures, a new retirement age of 62) --  are grabbing headlines this week, but their attempts at mobilization pale in comparison to the budding subversion of another, surprising set of malcontents: unhappy -- and, as it turns out, unlawful -- commuters.

Recently, turnstile hoppers (hardly a new breed of traveler in the Parisian subway system) have ratcheted up their disdain for transit regulations, coming together in so-called mutuelles des fraudeurs to protect themselves against fare-dodging fines -- and, while they're at it, to stick it to the man. The mutuelles resemble a hybrid insurance agency and support group: Members pay monthly dues of about $8.50 and, in return, are guaranteed full reimbursement for any fines they receive for "forgoing" the proper subway fee. (Typical fares are $2; typical fines are $60.) There are a few technicalities, of course: For example, members are strongly urged to pay their fines to officials upfront and are only assured compensation by the mutuelle if they show up in person at weekly meetings (usually held in avant-garde coffee shops).

Fare-dodging may look like a straightforward variation on petty theft -- a money-saving technique that regrettably comes at the expense of the law -- but the "fradeurs" insist they're not just pinching pennies: They're taking a stand. "Gildas" (a mutuelle leader who, in the true style of a subversive, declines to give his last because "we don't like this type of questions") has a surprisingly well-thought-out -- if ill-reasoned -- explanation for his behavior.  

"There are things in France which are supposed to be free - schools, health. So why not transportation? It's not a question of money.... It's a political question."

He fashions himself as a historic revolutionary, not an everyday criminal: "It's a way to resist together," he says. "We can make solidarity."

Lest any American commuters (or communists) start getting ideas, be warned: At least in Virginia, Metro miscreants pay for their mistakes with a visit to court.



Australia: Where climate change can bring down a prime minister

It's often said of climate change that it won't be a major priority for governments until politicians are afraid of being voted out of office over it. Well that (sort of) just happened in Australia, where the ruling Labor Party unceremoniously dumped Prime Minister Kevin Rudd today. It's been a precipitous fall for Rudd, who began this year as one of the most popular leaders in his country's history, but now hold the dubious honor of being the only postwar Australian prime minister voted out after less than one term. 

There were a number of missteps along the way, but Rudd, who described climate change as "the greatest moral challenge of our generation," abandoned his trademark carbon-trading scheme and backed down on a new mining tax. Rudd was never particularly popular within his own party, and when his public popularity began to slip, it was only a matter of time before he got the ax. 

New Prime Minister Julia Gillard -- the first woman to ever hold the job -- has already promised to pursue both carbon trading and the mining tax. Australia, heavily reliant on coal and one of the world's highest emitters per capita, still has a long way to go. But it has to be encouraging to environmentalists that the country's voters seem to be holding leaders accountable for their green talk.