PARIS: The French government will on Tuesday announce the suspension of fuel tax increases in a bid to quell fierce protests which have ballooned into the deepest crisis of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, political sources said.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will also unveil other measures to help boost the living standards of low-income households in a television address, his office confirmed.
“We need to calm the situation down to prevent it degenerating,” Philippe told a meeting of MPs from the ruling majority on Tuesday, several people present told AFP.
Pressure has been mounting after protests by the grassroots “yellow vest” movement degenerated into the worst street clashes in central Paris in decades at the weekend, leading to scores of injuries and arrests.
The concession on fuels taxes slated for January is the first time that Macron has had to give ground in the face of public opposition, a blow for a leader who has styled himself as an inflexible and determined economic reformer.
But it was unclear if the measures would assuage the anger on French streets, with both “yellow vest” leaders and opposition parties saying they were not enough.
“The French don’t want crumbs, they want the whole baguette,” Benjamin Cauchy, one of the movement’s organisers, told AFP, though he welcomed what he called “a first step” towards a “redistribution of wealth in France”.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a vocal supporter of the movement, said on Twitter that protesters wanted the fuel tax hike cancelled, not just suspended.
Rescinding the increase was the main demand of the demonstrators, alongside a higher minimum wage and the return of a wealth tax on high-earners which was abolished last year.
The “yellow vest” movement, named for the high-visibility jackets worn by supporters, emerged on social media in October after months of swelling anger over rising fuel prices.
It quickly coalesced into wider protests against rising costs of living, especially among rural and small-town voters who accuse Macron of representing a Parisian elite with little understanding of their monthly struggle to make ends meet.
Macron has not spoken publicly about Saturday’s destruction in Paris since his return from a G20 summit in Argentina on Sunday.
His only message, published on his official Twitter account on Monday, has been about the need to help handicapped people and their carers, leading to more criticism that he is too aloof.
But Macron postponed a planned visit to Belgrade due to the “problems” at home, his Serbian counterpart President Aleksandar Vucic announced on Monday.
The 40-year-old centrist was elected in May 2017 on a pro-business platform that included measures to incite companies to invest to create jobs.
Immediately after coming to power, he pushed through tax cuts for entrepreneurs and high-earners.
Those measures stirred anger among the “yellow vests” who have blocked highways and fuel depots around the country over the past two weeks.
The protests have spread to around a hundred schools nationwide, which were still partially or totally blocked Tuesday by teenagers voicing frustration over university entrance reforms.
Mass street protests have repeatedly forced previous French presidents into U-turns, something that Macron had vowed to avoid in his quest to “transform” the French economy and state.
He had already promised a 500-million-euro package to help poorer households cope with energy and transport costs, which was roundly rejected by yellow vest supporters.
“The longer this goes on, the higher the political price,” Bruno Cautres of the Cevipof political research institute warned on Monday in an interview with AFP.
Truckers count losses
Four people have been killed during the protests, including an 80-year-old woman who died in hospital on Sunday after being hit by a tear gas canister in Marseille.
The unrest degenerated into arson and looting around the Champs-Elysees avenue and other tourist attractions on Saturday, leading to shocking images that were broadcast round the world.
Police said 412 people were arrested in the capital on Saturday and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said that more than 200 burned-out cars had been removed from the streets.
She also said damage to bus stops, benches and other street furniture alone on Saturday was estimated at three to four million euros.
Business leaders warned it could cause shoppers to flee during the busy end-of-year holiday period.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Monday that hotel reservations had fallen by “around 15% to 20%” since the start of the protests.