Macron retreats on fuel tax hikes in bid to calm French protests
Gilets Jaunes (Yellow vest) protestors man a barricade on December 4, 2018 in Montabon, northwestern France, at an access to an oil depot they block since December 2 as part of the Gilets Jaunes protests. (JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER / AFP)
(AFP) - The French government has backed down on planned fuel tax hikes in a bid to draw the heat out of fierce protests that have escalated into the deepest crisis of Emmanuel Macron's presidency.
The concessions, coming after an earlier 500-million-euro ($570 million) relief package for poorer households, mark the first time 40-year-old Macron has given ground in the face of public opposition.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced Tuesday rollbacks on fuel taxes and electricity price increases in a rare televised address after France was rocked by intense street clashes and vandalism in Paris over the weekend.
"This anger, you would have to be deaf and blind not to see it, nor hear it," Philippe said after more than a fortnight of demonstrations by so-called "yellow vest" protesters.
"No tax merits putting the unity of the nation in danger," he said.
Planned tax increases on petrol and diesel on January 1 will be suspended for six months, while hikes in regulated electricity and gas prices will be frozen during the winter.
Pressure has been mounting on the government after protests degenerated into the worst street clashes in central Paris for decades.
Across France, four people have been killed in accidents linked to the demonstrations and road blockades, and hundreds injured.
For weeks Macron held his ground on the fuel taxes, which are meant to finance anti-pollution policies but critics say unfairly weigh on drivers in rural and small-town France.
Rescinding the January increase -- three euro cents for unleaded and six cents for diesel -- was a core demand of the demonstrators, alongside a higher minimum wage and the return of a wealth tax on high earners that Macron abolished.
Two groups blockading petrol depots in Brittany said they would stand down following the announcement of the measures, which will cost public coffers some two billion euros ($2.3 billion).
- Praise from Trump -
Yet many others said they had no intention of stopping the demonstrations.
"They hope we'll now go home but we're not going to move," said Lionel Rambeaux, a 41-year-old welder manning a fuel depot blockade outside Le Mans in western France.
"We want Macron and his entire government to resign."
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 protestors 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."
The French government is hoping to stave off another day of running riots and burning cars like on Saturday, when more than 400 people were arrested in the capital.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said extra police would be deployed next Saturday on top of the 65,000 out in force last weekend, urging "reasonable" members of the movement to stay at home.
Paris Saint-Germain's home Ligue 1 football match against Montpellier on Saturday has already been called off, as has an electro music festival in the city centre.
Mass protests have repeatedly forced French presidents into U-turns, something Macron had vowed to avoid in his quest to "transform" the French economy and state.
A new poll by the Ifop-Fiducial survey group on Tuesday showed the former investment banker's approval rating at a record low of 23 percent.
"Eventually he backed down, which is going to divide the (yellow vest) movement, but it also risks dividing his own political base," said Jerome Sainte-Marie of the PollingVox survey group.
- 'Original sin' -
Macron's office said he would not speak publicly about the violence "for the time being", though he met briefly with a protester at his office Tuesday.
He also visited local government offices in the central town of Puy-en-Velay, which were torched during a protest last weekend -- and was booed upon leaving.
The "yellow vest" movement, named after the high-visibility jackets worn by supporters, emerged on social media in October after months of swelling anger over rising fuel prices.
It quickly grew into wider protests against Macron, whom many accuse of representing a Parisian elite with little understanding of their monthly struggle to make ends meet.
Immediately after coming to power in 2017, Macron pushed through tax cuts for entrepreneurs and high-earners -- an "original sin" for his critics.
The "yellow vest" protests have blocked highways and fuel depots around the country, causing headaches for businesses and fuel shortages in some regions.
© Agence France-Presse