Published:  12:19 AM, 07 December 2018

French govt urges unity in face of mass protests

French govt urges unity in face of mass protests

The French government on Wednesday urged parties across the political divide to calm protests that have raged nationwide for more than two weeks, and signaled 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. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe echoed the call, telling parliament: "What is at stake is the security of French people and our institutions. I'm calling for responsibility."

The protests began on November 17 in opposition to rising fuel taxes, but they have ballooned into a broad challenge to Macron's pro-business agenda and complaints that he is out of touch with the struggles of ordinary people.

Four people have been killed and hundreds injured in accidents linked to the nationwide road blockades and protests, which are playing havoc with traffic in the busy run-up to Christmas.

On Saturday, rioters ran amok in Paris, torching some 200 cars, smashing shop windows and vandalising the Arc de Triomphe, an iconic national monument. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon have been vocal in backing the demonstrators' demands.

Macron, whose approval ratings have plummeted to just 23 percent, 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 decision to cut a "fortune tax" previously levied on high-earners. Philippe on Wednesday called for a debate on the controversial tax cut, signaling it could ultimately be repealed. "If we do not find good solutions, we will not apply it," he said of the tax cut.

Macron made cutting wealth taxes a key campaign pledge ahead of his election in May 2017, arguing that such levies discouraged investment and drove entrepreneurs to leave France.

But along with various comments deemed insensitive to ordinary workers, the policy has prompted many of the ex-banker's critics to label him a "president of the rich". On Tuesday, Philippe had 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.

But experts say the government may have reacted too late to the street protests, a regular feature of French political life which has 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.

An Elabe poll released Wednesday found 78 percent believe Philippe's concessions fail to meet the protesters demands, and most think they will fail to boost purchasing power. Some 72 percent continue to support the movement - figures which have remained stable despite the violence last weekend and the government's climb down.

Farmer protests Many "yellow vest" protesters, named after the high-visibility road safety jackets they wear, have called online for new protests this Saturday.  Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has urged "responsible" protesters not to descend on Paris but has nonetheless called in police reinforcements, bracing for more violence.

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 Wednesday 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.

---AFP, Paris


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