Macron makes U-turn on fuel-tax in­creases in face of ‘yel­low vest’ protests

Tehran Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

France’s prime min­is­ter on Tues­day sus­pended planned in­creases to fuel taxes for at least six months in re­sponse to weeks of some­times vi­o­lent protests, the first ma­jor U-turn by Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron’s ad­min­is­tra­tion af­ter 18 months in of­fice.

In an­nounc­ing the de­ci­sion, Prime Min­is­ter Edouard Philippe said any­one would have “to be deaf or blind” not to see or hear the roil­ing anger on the streets over a pol­icy that Macron has de­fended as crit­i­cal to com­bat­ing cli­mate change.

“The French who have donned yel­low vests want taxes to drop, and work to pay. That’s also what we want. If I didn’t man­age to ex­plain it, if the rul­ing ma­jor­ity didn’t man­age to con­vince the French, then some­thing must change,” said Philippe.

“No tax is worth jeop­ar­diz­ing the unity of the na­tion.”

Along with the de­lay to the tax in­creases that were set for Jan­uary, Philippe said the time would be used to dis­cuss other mea­sures to help the work­ing poor and squeezed mid­dle-class who rely on ve­hi­cles to get to work and go shop­ping.

Ear­lier of­fi­cials had hinted at a pos­si­ble in­crease to the min­i­mum wage, but Philippe made no such com­mit­ment.

He warned ci­ti­zens, how­ever, that they could not ex­pect bet­ter pub­lic ser­vices and lower taxes.

“If the events of re­cent days have shown us one thing, it’s that the French want nei­ther an in­crease in taxes or new taxes. If the tax­take falls then spend­ing must fall, be­cause we don’t want to pass our debts on to our chil­dren. And those debts are al­ready size­able,” he said.

The so-called “yel­low vest” move­ment, which started on Nov. 17 as a so­cial-me­dia protest group named for the high-vis­i­bil­ity jack­ets all mo­torists in France carry in their cars, be­gan with the aim of high­light­ing the squeeze on house­hold spend­ing brought about by Macron’s taxes on fuel.

How­ever, over the past three weeks the move­ment has evolved into a wider, broad­brush anti-Macron up­ris­ing, with many crit­i­ciz­ing the pres­i­dent for pur­su­ing poli­cies they say fa­vor the rich and do noth­ing to help the poor.

De­spite hav­ing no leader and some­times un­clear goals, the move­ment has drawn peo­ple of all ages and back­grounds and tapped into a grow­ing malaise over the di­rec­tion Macron is try­ing to take the coun­try in. Over the past two days, am­bu­lance driv­ers and stu­dents have joined in and launched their own protests.

Af­ter three weeks of ris­ing frus­tra­tion, there was scant in­di­ca­tion Philippe’s mea­sures would pla­cate the “yel­low vests”, who them­selves are strug­gling to find a uni­fied po­si­tion.

“The French don’t want crumbs, they want a baguette,” ‘yel­low vest’ spokesman Ben­jamin Cauchy told BFM, adding that the move­ment wanted a can­cel­la­tion of the taxes.

An­other one, Christophe Cha­len­con, was blunter: “We’re be­ing taken for id­iots,” he told Reuters, us­ing a stronger ex­ple­tive.

Green goals

The tim­ing of the tax U-turn is un­com­fort­able for Macron. It comes as gov­ern­ments meet in Poland to try to agree mea­sures to avert the most dam­ag­ing con­se­quences of global warm­ing, an is­sue Macron has made a cen­tral part of his agenda. His car­bon taxes were de­signed to ad­dress the is­sue.

But the scale of the protests against his poli­cies made it al­most im­pos­si­ble to plow ahead as he had hoped.

While the “yel­low vest” move­ment was mostly peace­ful to be­gin with, the past two week­ends have seen out­pour­ings of vi­o­lence and ri­ot­ing in Paris, with ex­treme far-right and far-left fac­tions join­ing the demos and spurring chaos.

On Satur­day, the Arc de Tri­om­phe na­tional mon­u­ment was de­faced and av­enues off the Champs El­y­sees were dam­aged. Cars, build­ings and some cafes were torched.

The un­rest is es­ti­mated to have cost the econ­omy mil­lions, with large-scale dis­rup­tion to re­tail­ers, whole­salers, the restau­rant and ho­tel trades. In some ar­eas, man­u­fac­tur­ing has been hit in the run up to Christ­mas.

Change France?

Macron, a 40-year-old for­mer in­vest­ment banker and econ­omy min­is­ter, came to of­fice in mid-2017 promis­ing to over­haul the French econ­omy, re­vi­tal­ize growth and draw for­eign in­vest­ment by mak­ing the na­tion a more at­trac­tive place to do busi­ness.

In the process he earned the tag “pres­i­dent of the rich” for seem­ing to do more to court big busi­ness and ease the tax bur­den on the wealthy. Dis­con­tent has steadily risen among blue-col­lar work­ers and oth­ers who feel he rep­re­sents an ur­ban “elite”.

For Macron, who is sharply down in the polls and strug­gling to re­gain the ini­tia­tive, a fur­ther risk is how op­po­si­tion par­ties lever­age the anger and the de­ci­sion to shift course.

Ahead of Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions next May, sup­port for the far-right un­der Ma­rine Le Pen and the far-left of Jean-Luc Me­len­chon has been ris­ing. Macron has cast those elec­tions as a bat­tle be­tween his “pro­gres­sive” ideas and what he sees as their pro­mo­tion of na­tion­al­ist or anti-EU agen­das.

Le Pen was quick to point out that the six-month post­pone­ment of the fuel-tax in­creases took the de­ci­sion be­yond the Eu­ro­pean elec­tions.

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