For three weeks now, protesters in France have been out in force to challenge new fuel taxes that amount to about 10 cents more per gallon for gas. Over the weekend, they burned cars in Paris and caused enough mayhem for Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to give in Tuesday, agreeing to delay the new taxes for six months.
The new taxes were in addition to a rise on what the French pay for electricity, an increase that has also been shelved for six months, according to The New York Times. The taxes were designed to fight climate change, but also ended up igniting the so-called Yellow Vest movement, a group of poor rural, suburban, and exurban French who have been protesting for weeks over bad living conditions in a country that has some of the highest taxes in Europe.
French gas prices currently average around $7 per gallon, according to the Associated Press, but the new taxes would have pushed that more than a dime higher. The hit is even more for diesel, which would have seen a raise of almost 30 cents per gallon, with more raises scheduled.
That isn’t much proportionally speaking, but at the root of the protests is class-based anger, as the BBC says that under Macron administration’s plans, the wealthy would benefit the most.
Mr Macron was elected on a platform of economic reform which would improve the lives of French people via lower unemployment and a kick-started economy.
But many feel that has not emerged. An analysis of the 2018-19 budget carried out by France’s public policy institute, for example, found that incomes for the poorest quarter of households would largely drop or stay the same under the plans.
Middle-income earners would see a modest bump - but the greatest beneficiaries would be those who were already wealthy, in the top 1%. The pattern is worse for retired people - almost all of whom will be worse off.
The movement is named for the safety vests that are required in all French cars, and which now have become a symbol of dissatisfaction with the administration of President Emmanuel Macron. The protests started three weeks ago, with road blockades springing up across the country, and a quarter-million French participating. The movement started on social media amidst unemployment figures in the country that are close to 10 percent, and seems to embody concerns for some on the left and the right. One unifying demand is for Macron to resign.
From the NYT:
“We’re not satisfied because the French have been struggling for years now,” Benjamin Cauchy, one of the spokesmen, said on BFM TV, a television news channel. “This could have been done weeks ago, and we would have avoided all these problems. Our demands are much bigger than this moratorium. They’ve got to stop hitting the wallets of the small earners. We want a better distribution of wealth, salary increases. It’s about the whole baguette, not just the crumbs.”
Lionel Cucchi, a spokesman in Marseille, told BFM TV that protesters were prepared to continue.
“There’s no guarantee it won’t be back in six months,” he said of the gas tax. “There will be more demonstrations. We remain mobilized.”
To the protesters, Mr. Macron, a 40-year-old former banker with no political experience before he was elected, is concerned about “the end of the world,” while they are worried about “the end of the month.”
Four people have died in the protests, including an 80-year-old woman who, NPR reports, was hit in the face with a tear gas canister as she tried to close her apartment window.
The rioters themselves are seen as “thugs,” in NPR’s formulation, or the “extreme fringe,” according to The Guardian. Some 387 were arrested, with police saying they were mostly thirtysomething males from outside Paris “who had come intending to fight police,” according to the Guardian. Property damage, meanwhile, was estimated to cost around $4.5 million.
The broader disgust with Macron is real, though, with Reuters reporting Tuesday that Macron has a 23 percent approval rating, the lowest since François Hollande in 2013, when Hollande was considered “the least popular leader in modern French history.”
More from The Guardian:
“Thousands of French have expressed their anger,” Philippe said in a televised statement. This anger goes back a long way and has often remained silent. Today it’s being expressed with force and in a collective way.”
He added: “One would have to be deaf and blind not to see or hear this. I hear this anger and I have understood its basis, its force and its seriousness. It is the anger of the French who work and work hard, but still have difficulty making ends meet, who find their backs against the wall.
“They have a sense of profound injustice at not being able to live a dignified life when they are working.”
Pictures and video from the riots in Paris were striking, as cars burned and French police brought out water guns and tear gas.
More photos from the weekend:
The six-month delay in implementation of the new taxes may not yet be enough to calm the riots, as the Yellow Vest movement is seemingly leaderless and amorphous, with demands that go far beyond the fuel taxes.
More from the Guardian:
The protest movement, which has no central organisation or leaders, has broadened its demands to include Macron’s resignation and the dissolution of the French parliament.
Benjamin Cauchy, a spokesperson for the gilets jaunes libres (free yellow vests) subgroup, said the movement’s demands included a redistribution of wealth as well as rises in salaries, pensions, social security payments and the minimum wage. He insisted the dialogue between the government and protesters did not have to be face to face.
“This is the 21st century and dialogue can happen by social networks and the media even without a meeting,” Cauchy said. “This started with ecological transition but what France wants is political transition.”
Phillipe, France’s prime minister, was supposed to meet with protest representatives today, but that meeting was cancelled, apparently after those representatives got death threats from other protesters. Another protest is planned for this Saturday, with no one quite certain where things go from here.