French unions join protests, pil­ing new pres­sure on Macron

The Beacon Herald - - WORLD NEWS - SA­MUEL PETREQUIN

PARIS — Na­tion­wide protests against French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron took on an even big­ger di­men­sion Wed­nes­day after trade unions and farm­ers vowed to join the fray, unim­pressed by gov­ern­ment con­ces­sions that tried to stem the mo­men­tum of the most vi­o­lent demon­stra­tions France has seen in a decade.

The “yel­low vest” protests be­gan over a gov­ern­ment plan to raise fuel taxes, but by the time Prime Min­is­ter Edouard Philippe bowed to three weeks of vi­o­lence and sus­pended the plan Tues­day, the protesters were de­mand­ing much more. Many work­ers in France are an­gry over the com­bi­na­tion of low wages, high taxes and high un­em­ploy­ment that have left many peo­ple strug­gling fi­nan­cially.

Macron’s pop­u­lar­ity has slumped to a new low since the first demon­stra­tions took place on Nov. 17. The former in­vest­ment banker, who has pushed pro-busi­ness eco­nomic re­forms to make France more glob­ally com­pet­i­tive, is ac­cused of be­ing the “pres­i­dent of the rich” and of be­ing es­tranged from the work­ing classes.

The sweep of the protests and their wide sup­port by ci­ti­zens of all po­lit­i­cal stripes has shocked the gov­ern­ment. In the last few days, Paris saw the worst anti-gov­ern­ment protest riot since 2005. French stu­dents set fires out­side high schools to protest a new univer­sity ap­pli­ca­tion sys­tem. Small busi­ness own­ers blocked roads to protest high taxes and re­tirees marched to protest the pres­i­dent’s per­ceived elitism.

On Wed­nes­day, France’s largest farm­ers’ union said it will launch anti-gov­ern­ment protests next week, after truck­ing unions called for a rolling strike.

Trade unions have not so far played a role in the yel­low vest protest move­ment but are now try­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on the grow­ing pub­lic anger. A joint state­ment from the CGT and the FO truck­ing unions called for ac­tion Sun­day night to protest a cut in over­time rates. France’s trans­porta­tion min­is­ter agreed to meet with truck­ers’ rep­re­sen­ta­tives on Thurs­day.

The FNSEA farm­ers’ union said it would fight to help French farm­ers earn a bet­ter in­come but would not of­fi­cially be join­ing forces with the “yel­low vests” — protesters wear­ing the high-vis­i­bil­ity vests that French mo­torists are re­quired to keep in their cars.

French po­lice have cleared most of the fuel de­pots that protesters had blocked ear­lier in the week, but fuel short­ages con­tin­ued to hit parts of France on Wed­nes­day, with hun­dreds of gas sta­tions af­fected.

De­mon­stra­tors were also block­ing toll booths, let­ting driv­ers pass with­out pay­ing, to press de­mands that ranged from higher in­comes and pen­sions to the dis­so­lu­tion of the Na­tional As­sem­bly, France’s par­lia­ment.

At Tol­biac Univer­sity in down­town Paris, stu­dents took over a school build­ing and classes were can­celled.

“We need taxes, but they are not prop­erly re­dis­tributed,” pro­tester Thomas Tri­cot­tet told BFM tele­vi­sion. “We ob­vi­ously need to fight against this.”

The high school stu­dents’ FIDL union called for a “mas­sive and gen­eral mo­bi­liza­tion” on Thurs­day and urged France’s ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter to step down.

One stu­dent was in­jured dur­ing protests at a high school in Saint-Jean-de-Braye in north-cen­tral France. BFM said he was shot in the head with a rub­ber bul­let but au­thor­i­ties did not con­firm that. Julien Guiller, a spokesman for the re­gional school ad­min­is­tra­tion, told The As­so­ci­ated Press the stu­dent was ex­pected to sur­vive.

The French gov­ern­ment is clearly on the back foot. A day after an­nounc­ing a six-month sus­pen­sion of the higher fuel tax, it opened the door for more con­ces­sions as spokesman Ben­jamin Griveaux did not rule out bring­ing back a wealth tax that was slashed after Macron came to power in May 2017.

“If some­thing isn’t work­ing, we’re not dumb — we’ll change it,” Griveaux told RTL ra­dio, though he said “the is­sue is not on the ta­ble for now.”

That’s one rea­son other groups are join­ing the yel­low vest protests — they hope to win con­ces­sions from France’s weak­ened gov­ern­ment.

Since re­turn­ing from the G-20 sum­mit in Ar­gentina over the week­end, Macron’s ac­tions have done lit­tle to re­as­sure protesters that he is lis­ten­ing to their con­cerns.

BER­TRAND COMBALDIEU/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Christophe Cha­len­con, one of the fig­ures at the fore­front of France’s protest move­ment, on Wed­nes­day, in Paris.

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