French government urges unity in face of mass protests


Wed, 05 Dec 2018 - 11:10 GMT

Yellow vest protesters have blocked fuel depots like this one in Frontignan, southern France, where a woman's vest reads "Macron, traitor, the people are hungry"

Yellow vest protesters have blocked fuel depots like this one in Frontignan, southern France, where a woman's vest reads "Macron, traitor, the people are hungry"

PARIS - 6 December 2018: The French government on Wednesday urged parties across the political divide to calm the 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.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe echoed the call, telling parliament: "What is at stake is the security of French people and our institutions. I'm calling for responsibility."

The protests began on November 17 in opposition to rising fuel taxes, but they have ballooned into a broad challenge to Macron's pro-business agenda and complaints that he is out of touch with the struggles of ordinary people.

Four people have been killed and hundreds injured in accidents linked to the nationwide road blockades and protests, which are playing havoc with traffic in the busy run-up to Christmas.

On Saturday, rioters ran amok in Paris, torching some 200 cars, smashing shop windows and vandalising the Arc de Triomphe, an iconic national monument.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon have been vocal in backing the demonstrators' demands.

- Tax cuts for the rich -

Macron, whose approval ratings have plummeted to just 23 percent, is yet to comment publicly since returning to France from a G20 summit in Argentina on Sunday morning.

But his office confirmed he had told a cabinet meeting Wednesday that he stood by his decision to cut a "fortune tax" previously levied on high-earners which has infuriated many protesters.

Macron had made cutting wealth taxes a key campaign pledge ahead of his election in May 2017, arguing that such levies discouraged investment and drove entrepreneurs to leave France.

But that policy, along with various comments deemed insensitive to ordinary workers, has prompted many of the ex-banker's critics to label him a "president of the rich".

The "yellow vests" are largely made up of modest earners from rural and small-town France, and many want the tax cut for the richest repealed.

Philippe on Wednesday called for a debate on the tax cut, adding: "If we do not find good solutions, we will not apply it."

But Macron personally stood his ground, telling his cabinet: "We will not undo everything that has been done over the past 18 months."

On Tuesday, Philippe had 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.

But experts say the government may have 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.

An Elabe poll released Wednesday found 78 percent believe Philippe's concessions fail to meet the protesters demands, and most think they will fail to boost purchasing power.

Some 72 percent continue to support the movement -- figures which have remained stable despite the violence last weekend and the government's climbdown.

- Farmer protests -

Many "yellow vest" protesters, named after the high-visibility road safety jackets they wear, have called for new protests this Saturday.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has urged "responsible" protesters not to descend on Paris but has nonetheless called in police reinforcements, bracing for more violence.

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.



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