Macron govt urges unity in face of mass protests

Gulf Times - - EUROPE -

The French gov­ern­ment yes­ter­day urged par­ties across the po­lit­i­cal di­vide to calm protests that have raged na­tion­wide for more than two weeks, and sig­nalled it was ready to make fur­ther con­ces­sions to avoid more vi­o­lence.

French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron ap­pealed to ri­val po­lit­i­cal lead­ers as well as trade unions to help tamp down the anti-gov­ern­ment anger that on Satur­day led to some of the worst ri­ot­ing in cen­tral Paris in decades, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment spokesman Ben­jamin Griveaux.

“The mo­ment that we are liv­ing through is not about po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion, it’s about the re­pub­lic,” Griveaux said af­ter a cab­i­net meet­ing.

The head of the up­per house of par­lia­ment, Ger­ard Larcher, also sounded the alarm about the in­sur­rec­tional na­ture of the “yel­low vest” protests which be­gan on Novem­ber 17.

“The re­pub­lic is un­der threat,” Larcher told France In­ter ra­dio.

“I’m not seek­ing to be dra­matic. I want ev­ery­one to un­der­stand their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.”

He re­ferred to the sight of Arc de Tri­om­phe — a na­tional sym­bol — be­ing van­dalised by ri­ot­ers who ran amok through Paris, torch­ing cars and smash­ing shop win­dows.

The protests be­gan on Novem­ber 17 in op­po­si­tion to ris­ing fuel taxes, but they have since bal­looned into a broad chal­lenge to Macron’s probusi­ness agenda and style of gov­ern­ing.

Far-right leader Ma­rine Le Pen and hard-left fire­brand Jean-Luc Me­len­chon, who lost out to Macron in elec­tions last year, have been vo­cal in back­ing the demon­stra­tors’ de­mands.

The 40-year-old cen­trist pres­i­dent was heck­led on Tues­day as he vis­ited a burned-out gov­ern­ment build­ing in cen­tral France, hours af­ter a new opin­ion poll showed his ap­proval rat­ing at just 23%.

He is yet to com­ment pub­licly since re­turn­ing to France from a G20 sum­mit in Ar­gentina on Sun­day morn­ing.

A fre­quent de­mand from the protesters, who are mostly from ru­ral and small-town France, is a re­peal of his move last year to cut a “for­tune tax” pre­vi­ously levied on high-earn­ers.

Griveaux in­di­cated it might be re­pealed, once an eval­u­a­tion of its ef­fects had been com­pleted in 2019.

“If some­thing isn’t work­ing, we’re not dumb, we’ll change it,” he told RTL ra­dio.

Macron made scrap­ping the “for­tune tax” a key cam­paign pledge ahead of his elec­tion in May 2017, ar­gu­ing that such levies on the wealthy dis­cour­aged in­vest­ment and drove en­trepreneurs to leave France.

Griveaux stressed that re­in­stat­ing the tax “is not on the ta­ble for now”, but Equal­ity Min­is­ter Mar­lene Schi­appa said she would ar­gue to bring it back un­less the tax cut was shown to be ef­fec­tive.

“The gov­ern­ment has been too tech­no­cratic and took too long to re­spond” to the protests, she told France 3 tele­vi­sion.

On Tues­day, Prime Min­is­ter Edouard Philippe an­nounced the first ma­jor re­treat of Macron’s pres­i­dency when he sus­pended for six months a rise in fuel taxes sched­uled for Jan­uary 1.

He also froze in­creases in reg­u­lated elec­tric­ity and gas prices and new ve­hi­cle norms which would have hit users of old, pol­lut­ing diesel cars — a bat­tery of an­nounce­ments tar­geted at low-in­come fam­i­lies.

A source in the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice told AFP that “the gov­ern­ment has not nec­es­sar­ily played all of its cards”, with more con­ces­sions pos­si­ble such as a fur­ther cut in res­i­dence taxes.

But ex­perts say the gov­ern­ment has re­acted too late to the street protests, a reg­u­lar fea­ture of French po­lit­i­cal life which have re­peat­edly forced Macron’s pre­de­ces­sors into U-turns.

“When you leave things to fes­ter too long, it costs more,” Jean-Fran­cois Amadieu, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at Paris 1 univer­sity, told AFP.

Ray­mond Sou­bie, an­other ex­pert on French protest groups, said that “the big­gest ques­tion is whether pub­lic opin­ion con­tin­ues to sup­port the yel­low vests”.

A poll this week found 71% backed for the move­ment, but the same pro­por­tion be­lieved the protests should stop if the gov­ern­ment backed down on fuel tax hikes.

Many “yel­low vest” protesters, named af­ter the high-vis­i­bil­ity jack­ets they wear, said Philippe’s roll­back was not enough and have called for new protests this Satur­day.

In­te­rior Min­is­ter Christophe Cas­taner urged “re­spon­si­ble” protesters not to come to the cap­i­tal.

Op­po­si­tion lead­ers, in­clud­ing Lau­rent Wauquiez of the rightwing Re­pub­li­cans, have called on the gov­ern­ment to im­pose a state of emer­gency and to de­ploy army units to back up the po­lice.

Adding to the image of a coun­try in re­volt, the main French farm­ers union said yes­ter­day that its mem­bers would hold demon­stra­tions ev­ery day next week.

Two truck driver unions have also called an in­def­i­nite sym­pa­thy strike from Sun­day night, and stu­dents are block­ing dozens of schools na­tion­wide to de­nounce tougher univer­sity en­trance re­quire­ments.

Fuel short­ages due to block­ades re­main a prob­lem in ar­eas of Brit­tany, Nor­mandy and south­east re­gions of France.

A French riot po­lice of­fi­cer stands next to a burn­ing bar­ri­cade dur­ing a de­mon­stra­tion against French gov­ern­ment’s ed­u­ca­tion re­forms in Bordeaux yes­ter­day.

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