High alert

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - REGIS DUVIGNAU / REUTERS

A pro­tester in a yel­low vest, a sym­bol of dis­sat­is­fac­tion over higher fuel prices, holds the French flag as he hangs by a crane at a round­about in Cis­sac-Me­doc, France, on Wed­nes­day.

PARIS — The French gov­ern­ment, un­der pres­sure from weeks of “yel­low vest” protests over ris­ing liv­ing costs, has scrapped all planned fuel tax hikes for 2019 and ap­pealed for calm.

An in­crease sched­uled for Jan 1 was “scrapped for the year 2019” in its en­tirety, En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Fran­cois de Rugy an­nounced on BFM TV, in an about-turn for the gov­ern­ment.

The pres­i­dency, mean­while, warned of pos­si­ble vi­o­lence dur­ing a new round of protests planned for Satur­day in Paris and else­where in the coun­try.

“We have rea­sons to fear ma­jor vi­o­lence,” a source in the El­y­see Palace said amid calls for fresh mo­bi­liza­tion of the “yel­low vests” move­ment al­ready linked to four deaths and hun­dreds of in­juries in of­ten vi­o­lent demon­stra­tions.

The protests be­gan on Nov 17 to op­pose ris­ing fuel taxes, but have bal­looned into a broad chal­lenge to French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron’s per­ceived pro-busi­ness agenda and com­plaints that he is out of touch with the strug­gles of or­di­nary peo­ple.

De­mon­stra­tors have blocked roads na­tion­wide, play­ing havoc with traf­fic in the busy run-up to Christ­mas.

On Satur­day, riot­ers ran amok in the cap­i­tal, torch­ing nearly 200 cars, smash­ing shop win­dows, and van­dal­iz­ing the Arc de Tri­om­phe.

Macron and his gov­ern­ment ap­pealed for calm on Wed­nes­day, and sig­naled they were ready to make fur­ther con­ces­sions to avoid more vi­o­lence. “The mo­ment that we are liv­ing through is not about po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion, it’s about the re­pub­lic,” gov­ern­ment spokesman Ben­jamin Griveaux said after a meet­ing where he said Macron urged de­ci­sion-mak­ers to is­sue “a clear and ex­plicit call to calm”.

How­ever, 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

Protests con­tin­ued on Wed­nes­day, with petrol de­pots, ser­vice sta­tions, and shop­ping cen­ters among the tar­gets of the “yel­low vests” — so named for the high-vis­i­bil­ity road safety jack­ets they wear.

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

But his of­fice said he told min­is­ters he would stick to his de­ci­sion to cut a “for­tune tax” on high-earn­ers — a move which has in­fu­ri­ated many protesters.

Macron had made cut­ting wealth taxes a key cam­paign pledge ahead of his elec­tion in May 2017, ar­gu­ing such levies dis­cour­age in­vest­ment and drive away en­trepreneurs.

But the pol­icy, along with com­ments deemed in­sen­si­tive to the work­ing class, has prompted many of the ex-banker’s crit­ics to la­bel him a “pres­i­dent of the rich”.

Some ex­perts say the gov­ern­ment may have re­acted too late to the protests — a reg­u­lar fea­ture of French po­lit­i­cal life which have re­peat­edly forced pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents into U-turns. “When you leave things to fes­ter too long, it costs more,” said JeanFran­cois Amadieu, a so­ci­ol­o­gist.

The mo­ment that we are liv­ing through is not about po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion, it’s about the re­pub­lic.”

Ben­jamin Griveaux,

gov­ern­ment spokesman

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