Macron caves in to French ‘yellow vest’ protesters

The French government has caved in after Paris’ worst rioting in decades and delayed an increase in energy taxes – but it was seen as “too little, too late” by many protesters whose anger seems increasingly focused on embattled President Emmanuel Macron.

Demonstrators were back in the streets Tuesday wearing their signature yellow vests. They blocked several fuel depots and, on a highway near the southern city of Aubagne, commandeered a toll booth to let motorists pass for free near a sign reading “Macron dictator”.

The protests began November 17 with motorists upset over the fuel tax increase, but have grown to encompass a range of complaints – the stagnant economy, social injustice and France’ tax system, one of the highest in Europe – and some now call for the government to resign.

Last weekend, more than 130 people were injured and 412 arrested in rioting in the French capital. Shops were looted and cars torched in plush neighbourhoods around the famed Champs-Elysees Avenue. The Arc de Triomphe was sprayed with graffiti and vandalised.

Four people have been killed, officials said, and more protests are planned for this weekend.

One unifying complaint among the leaderless protesters, who come from across the political and social spectrum, has been the anger at Macron and the perceived elitism of France’s aloof ruling class.

Since returning from the G20 summit in Argentina, Macron has either remained in his palace residence or else shied away from speaking publicly about the protests that have created his biggest political crisis since taking office last May.

It was Prime Minister Edouard Philippe who announced a six-month delay in the fuel tax increase that was to have begun in January.

Just three weeks ago, Philippe had insisted the government would be steadfast in the tax plans aimed at weaning French consumers off fossil fuels. He also announced a freeze in electricity and natural gas prices until May.

“No tax is worth putting the nation’s unity in danger,” Philippe said in a live televised address.

Macron, for his part, visited a regional government headquarters that was torched by protesters, but he did not speak to reporters.

The government U-turn appeared to appease few of the protesters, who wear the yellow vests that France requires motorists to have in their vehicles in case of roadside emergencies.

“It’s a first step, but we will not settle for crumbs,” said Benjamin Cauchy, a self-proclaimed protest leader.

Another self-proclaimed leader Thierry Paul Valette said that protesters were unhappy not just about the price of fuel but general discontent with economic inequality.

“It’s coming too late. … I’m calling this government to resign,” Valette said.

Damien Abad, a lawmaker from the centre-right Les Republicains party, also called it “too little, too late”.

“If your only response, Mr Prime Minister, is the suspension of Macron’s fuel taxes, then you still haven’t realised the gravity of the situation,” Abad said.

“What we are asking of you Mr Prime Minister, is not a postponement. It’s a change of course.”

US President Donald Trump said Tuesday that Macron’s retreat vindicated his rejection of the 2015 Paris Agreement on combating climate change.

“I am glad that my friend @EmmanuelMacron and the protesters in Paris have agreed with the conclusion I reached two years ago,” Trump tweeted.

“The Paris Agreement is fatally flawed because it raises the price of energy for responsible countries while whitewashing some of the worst polluters … in the world.”

Trump also retweeted a false claim from American conservative student activist Charlie Kirk that said: “’We want Trump’ being chanted through the streets of Paris.”

Protest and street violence has been a central part of France’s political culture – from the Revolution in the late 1700s to the student riots in 1968 – and the yellow vest movement reflects this tradition.

In the port city of Marseille, students clashed with police outside a high school – one of about 100 high schools around France that were blocked or otherwise disrupted by student protests, according to the Education Ministry. Many are protesting a new university application system.

Philippe held crisis talks with representatives of major political parties on Monday, and met with Macron, who cancelled a two-day trip to Serbia.

“This violence must end,” Philippe said.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen tweeted that the delay in price increases was “obviously not up to the expectations of the French people struggling with precariousness,” and noted sarcastically that it is “surely a coincidence” that the rise in prices will take effect a few days after European Union elections.

History to Macron: French protesters always win

May 1968

Some 9 million students, blue-collar workers and civil servants took to the streets. Reflecting social unrest around the world, they protested authority, capitalism, consumerism, poverty and just about everything else.

Seven people died and hundreds were severely injured. Finally, President Charles de Gaulle agreed to increase the minimum wage by 35 per cent and overall incomes by 10 per cent. The National Assembly was dissolved and general elections were called.

November-December 1995

About 2 million transport workers, from urban transit drivers to high-speed train engineers, brought the country to a halt over Prime Minister Alain Juppe’s plan to reform the social-benefits system, impose welfare cutbacks and raise the retirement age for public transport workers.

His attitude – “I stick to my guns” -aggravated the stand-off as Parisians walked and hitchhiked to work, travel plans were wrecked and public anger intensified – peacefully. Juppe cancelled the reforms on December 15.

February-March 2006

High schools and universities across France erupted after Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin proposed a lower wage scale for recent graduates. The Sorbonne was among the institutions occupied.

Labour unions joined the protests, some of which turned violent. The wage plan was scrapped barely a month after it had been passed by parliament.

October 2010

Millions of workers and students marched against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposed pension reform, which was intended to align public workers’ special retirement plans with those of other French workers. Thousands were arrested and hundreds were injured, some severely. The reform was part of a broader plan to cut public spending.

Sarkozy’s government eventually cut out the most controversial parts of the bill, including changes to the special status of government workers, but maintained lifting the retirement age.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg and Agence France-Presse.

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