France braces for more protests despite retreat on taxes

Published 06.12.2018 00:00
Updated 06.12.2018 08:00

The concessions made by France's prime minister in a bid to stop the huge, violent anti-government demonstrations that have been rocking France over the past three weeks, seem to have so far failed to convince protesters, with trade unions and farmers now threatening to join the fray.

A day after Edouard Philippe announced a suspension of planned fuel tax hikes that kicked off the protests, the "yellow vest" protest movement showed no sign of slowing down yesterday. Students opposed to a university application system remained mobilized, trucking unions called for a rolling strike and France's largest farm union threatened to launch protests next week. A joint statement by the CGT and FO trucking unions protesting a cut to overtime rates called for action starting Sunday night.

The popular rebellion erupted out of nowhere on Nov. 17 and has spread quickly via social media, with protesters blocking roads across France and impeding access to shopping malls, factories and some fuel depots. The "yellow vest" movement — led by protesters wearing the distinctively colored roadside safety vests used by motorists — is bringing together people from across the political spectrum complaining about France's economic inequalities and waning spending power.

Several "yellow vest" spokespeople have called for a third Saturday of protests in Paris, despite last weekend's riots that saw demonstrators battling police and the Arc de Triomphe vandalized. The head of France's main opposition party yesterday called for a state of emergency to be declared ahead of new protests expected on Saturday.

The French government signaled yesterday that it was prepared to make further concessions to protesters, even raising a possible rollback on a controversial move to cut taxes for high earners last year. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the first major U-turn of French President Emmanuel Macron's presidency when he suspended for six months a rise in fuel taxes scheduled for Jan. 1. Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux stressed that the tax hikes could be scrapped permanently if no agreement was reached during consultations over the next six months. "We're not in politics to be right. We're in politics so that things work out," he said.

President Macron faces a crucial few days as he seeks an end to more than two weeks of protests that degenerated on Saturday into some of the worst violence in central Paris in decades. The former investment banker was heckled by a crowd as he visited a burned out government building in Puy-en-Velay in central France on Tuesday night, just hours after a new opinion poll showed his approval rating at just 23 percent.

One of the frequent demands from the protesters, who are mostly from rural or small-town France, is a repeal of Macron's move last year to cut the ISF "fortune tax" which was previously levied on high-earners. "If something isn't working, we're not dumb, we'll change it," Griveaux said on RTL radio yesterday morning, saying the wealth tax would be evaluated between now and late next year. Macron, 40, made the issue one of his key campaign pledges ahead of his election in May 2017, arguing that punitive taxes on the wealthy discouraged job creation and led many entrepreneurs to leave France.

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