4 Dec 2018

French PM 'to halt fuel tax rise'

10:50 pm on 4 December 2018

The French government will suspend a fuel tax rise which has led to weeks of violent protests, local media report.

A "Yellow Vest" (Gilets Jaunes in French) protester waves a French flag on the A6 motorway in Villefranche-sur-Saone on November 24, 2018.

A "Yellow Vest" protester waves a French flag on the A6 motorway in Villefranche-sur-Saone last month. Photo: AFP

The protests have hit major French cities causing considerable damage for the past three weekends.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe sought compromise with the protesters, but they called off talks citing death threats from extremists in their ranks.

The "gilets jaunes" (yellow vests) protests have now grown to reflect more widespread anger at the government.

Three people have died since the unrest began and the resulting violence and vandalism - notably when statues were smashed at the Arc de Triomphe last Saturday - have been widely condemned.

"Yellow vests" are called so because they have taken to the streets wearing the high-visibility yellow clothing that is required to be carried in every vehicle by French law.

The movement has grown via social media and has supporters across the political spectrum.

President Emmanuel Macron was elected two years ago with an overwhelming mandate for sweeping reform, but his popularity has fallen sharply in recent months.

Mr Macron has accused his political opponents of hijacking the movement in order to block the reforms.

What has the government been doing?

Mr Macron held an urgent security meeting on Monday, ministers said that while no options had been ruled out, imposing a state of emergency had not been discussed during the talks.

He has also cancelled a planned trip to Serbia to concentrate on the crisis.

Mr Philippe, meanwhile, spoke to leaders of the opposition earlier this week. He is due to meet MPs from the ruling party, La Republique en Marche and is expected to announce the moratorium afterwards.

The government confirmed that he would make an announcement during the day but did not say what the content would be, AFP said.

French president Emmanuel Macron

French president Emmanual Macron has accused his political opponents of hijacking the movement in order to block the reforms. Photo: AFP

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire met business representatives to assess the damage caused to businesses over the weekend.

Some retailers had seen sales drop by around 20-40% during the demonstrations, while some restaurants had lost 20-50% of their takings, he added.

How has the news been received?

Bruno Retailleau, the Senate leader of the centre-right opposition, the Republicans, said the reported moratorium was "absolutely inadequate".

"If it's in the real sense of the word, i.e. simply delays before the tax rise is actually introduced, that's not what is needed, it will not calm things down."

Far-right leader Marine le Pen concurred, tweeting (in French) that a postponement, rather than cancellation, of the tax did not go far enough.

Who are the protesters?

The "gilets jaunes" movement began as a protest against a rise in duties on diesel - which is widely used by French motorists and has long been less heavily taxed than other types of fuel.

Mr Macron said his motivation for the increase is environmental, but protesters call him out of touch - particularly with non-city dwellers who rely on their cars.

The movement later grew to reflect a range of grievances, including the marginalisation of rural areas, high living costs, and general anger at President Macron's economic policies.

The protests have no identifiable leadership and gained momentum via social media, encompassing a whole range of participants from the anarchist far left to the nationalist far right, and plenty of moderates in-between.

Nearly 300,000 people took part in the first countrywide demonstration. There were more than 106,000 a week later, and 136,000 people last Saturday.

Segolene Royal, former ecology minister for the centre-left Socialists, welcomed the move but said the tax should have been put on hold from the beginning.

Do the protests show any sign of stopping?

Protests continued into Monday, about 50 "yellow vests" blocked access to a major fuel depot in the port of Fos-sur-Mer, near Marseille, and petrol stations across the country have run out of fuel.

Changes affecting ambulance drivers are also part of a raft of reforms by President Macron.

Private ambulance drivers staged further demonstrations on Monday against a range of social security and healthcare reforms they say could affect their services.

One protester told the Reuters news agency: "[The reforms] will bludgeon us financially and destroy our companies. We're going to have to fire people, that's for sure."

It is unclear whether the groups of students and health workers have directly aligned themselves with the "yellow vests".

One member of the movement, a man in his 20s, is in a critical condition in hospital in Toulouse.

He was injured in a clash with police.

Students in about 100 secondary schools across the country held demonstrations against educational and exam reforms.