France fuel protests: PM Philippe suspends fuel tax rise

Protesters hold a French flag near a burning barricade during a protest of Yellow vestsImage copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Phillippe said the people’s anger must be heard

France’s PM has announced a six-month suspension of a fuel tax rise which has led to weeks of violent protests.

Edouard Philippe said that people’s anger must be heard, and the measures would not be applied until there had been proper debate with those affected.

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

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 so called 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 did Mr Philippe say?

Mr Philippe announced the measures in a TV address after meeting MPs from the ruling party, La Republique en Marche.

He said the six-month suspension would be applied to fuel tax increases, as well as hikes in electricity and gas prices and strict vehicle emissions controls.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Vandalism was rife during the protests in Paris

“The French people who have put on yellow vests love their country,” he said. “We share those values.”

But he said the violence must stop.

“The main role of the state is to guarantee public order but we must fight against anything that endangers the unity of the nation,” he said, adding that any future demonstrations should be declared officially and carried out peacefully.

Mr Philippe added that a public consultation would be held on taxes and public spending from 15 December until 1 March.

It is not clear how the government will find the revenue it was anticipating from these measures, but Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire – quoted by Reuters – said the suspension would not put its budget commitments in jeopardy.

What is the wider anger about?

Emmanuel Macron was elected on a platform of economic reform, which would, the French people were told, improve their lot – with lower unemployment and a kick-started economy.

But many feel that has not emerged. An analysis of the 2018-19 budget carried out by France’s public policy institute, for example, found that the poorest quarter of households would largely see their income drop or stay the same under the plans.

Middle-income earners would see a modest bump – but the greatest beneficiaries would be those who are already wealthy, in the top 1%. The pattern is worse for retired people – almost all of whom will be worse off.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Mr Macron (L) had vowed no capitulation to street protests

Macron’s difficulty

By Hugh Schofield, BBC News, Paris

The protesters had been waiting for the president to enact the next step in the elaborate pas-de-deux, which is French social negotiation.

What the ritual required was a gesture from the government that showed that it had not just listened, but was prepared to appease.

That is how, since time immemorial, French social conflicts have been resolved.

The difficulty for Emmanuel Macron is that this is exactly the kind of capitulation to the street that he has vowed to stop. There will be no change of direction, he repeats to all who will hear, because that would only store up worse problems for the future.

Read more from Hugh

How has the news been received?

Yellow vests spokesman Benjamin Cauchy said the move was “either a disguised political snub or… to make fun of the French and put the tax back in six months”.

Bruno Retailleau, the Senate leader of the centre-right opposition, the Republicans, said the suspension was “absolutely inadequate”.

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Media captionFrance fuel protests: Who are the people in the yellow vests?

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

Ségolène 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.

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

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Changes affecting ambulance drivers are part of a raft of reforms by President Macron

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.

What were the changes that caused this anger?

The price of diesel, the most commonly used fuel in French cars, has risen by around 23% over the past 12 months to an average of €1.51 (£1.32; $1.71) per litre, its highest point since the early 2000s.

World oil prices did rise before falling back again, but the Macron government raised its hydrocarbon tax this year by 7.6 cents per litre on diesel and 3.9 cents on petrol.

Mr Macron has blamed world oil prices for three-quarters of the price rise but said more tax on fossil fuels was needed to fund renewable energy investments.

The decision to impose a further increase of 6.5 cents on diesel and 2.9 cents on petrol on 1 January 2019 was seen as the final straw for the protesters.

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