French government urges unity in face of mass protests

A student is arrested by police during a demonstration, on Monday, in Bordeaux, southwestern France. (AFP pic)

PARIS: The French government on Wednesday urged parties across the political divide to calm protests that have raged nationwide for more than two weeks, and signalled it was ready to make further concessions to avoid more violence.

French President Emmanuel Macron appealed to rival political leaders as well as trade unions to help tamp down the anti-government anger that on Saturday led to some of the worst rioting in central Paris in decades, according to government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux.

“The moment that we are living through is not about political opposition, it’s about the republic,” Griveaux said after a cabinet meeting.

The head of the upper house of parliament, Gerard Larcher, also sounded the alarm about the insurrectional nature of the “yellow vest” protests which began on November 17.

“The republic is under threat,” Larcher told France Inter radio. “I’m not seeking to be dramatic. I want everyone to understand their responsibilities.”

He referred to the sight of Arc de Triomphe — a national symbol — being vandalised by rioters who ran amok through Paris, torching cars and smashing shop windows.

The protests began on November 17 in opposition to rising fuel taxes, but they have since ballooned into a broad challenge to Macron’s pro-business agenda and style of governing.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, who lost out to Macron in elections last year, have been vocal in backing the demonstrators’ demands.

The 40-year-old centrist president was heckled Tuesday as he visited a burned-out government building in central France, hours after a new opinion poll showed his approval rating at just 23 percent.

He is yet to comment publicly since returning to France from a G20 summit in Argentina on Sunday morning.

Too slow?

A frequent demand from the protesters, who are mostly from rural and small-town France, is a repeal of his move last year to cut a “fortune tax” previously levied on high-earners.

Griveaux indicated it might be repealed, once an evaluation of its effects had been completed in 2019.

“If something isn’t working, we’re not dumb, we’ll change it,” he told RTL radio.

Macron made scrapping the “fortune tax” a key campaign pledge ahead of his election in May 2017, arguing that such levies on the wealthy discouraged investment and drove entrepreneurs to leave France.

Griveaux stressed that reinstating the tax “is not on the table for now”, but Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa said she would argue to bring it back unless the tax cut was shown to be effective.

“The government has been too technocratic and took too long to respond” to the protests, she told France 3 television.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the first major retreat of Macron’s presidency when he suspended for six months a rise in fuel taxes scheduled for January 1.

He also froze increases in regulated electricity and gas prices and new vehicle norms which would have hit users of old, polluting diesel cars — a battery of announcements targeted at low-income families.

A source in the prime minister’s office told AFP that “the government has not necessarily played all of its cards”, with more concessions possible such as a further cut in residence taxes.

But experts say the government has reacted too late to the street protests, a regular feature of French political life which have repeatedly forced Macron’s predecessors into U-turns.

“When you leave things to fester too long, it costs more,” Jean-Francois Amadieu, a sociologist at Paris 1 university, told AFP.

Raymond Soubie, another expert on French protest groups, said that “the biggest question is whether public opinion continues to support the yellow vests”.

A poll on Tuesday found 71 percent backed for the movement, but the same proportion believed the protests should stop if the government backed down on fuel tax hikes.

Farmer protests

Many “yellow vest” protesters, named after the high-visibility jackets they wear, said Philippe’s rollback was not enough and have called for new protests this Saturday.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner urged “responsible” protesters not to come to the capital.

Opposition leaders, including Laurent Wauquiez of the rightwing Republicans, have called on the government to impose a state of emergency and to deploy army units to back up the police.

Adding to the image of a country in revolt, the main French farmers union said Wednesday that its members would hold demonstrations every day next week.

Two truck driver unions have also called an indefinite sympathy strike from Sunday night, and students are blocking dozens of schools nationwide to denounce tougher university entrance requirements.

Fuel shortages due to blockades remain a problem in areas of Brittany, Normandy and southeast regions of France.