The French government signalled Wednesday that it was prepared to make further concessions to “yellow vest” protesters, even raising a possible rollback on a controversial move to cut taxes for high earners last year.
President Emmanuel Macron faces a crucial few days as he seeks an end to more than two weeks of protests which degenerated on Saturday into some of the worst violence in central Paris in decades.
The “yellow vest” protests began on November 17 in opposition to rising fuel taxes, but they have since ballooned into a broad challenge to the government’s pro-business agenda.
One of the frequent demands from the protesters, who are mostly from rural or small-town France, is a repeal of Macron’s move last year to cut the ISF “fortune tax” which was previously levied on high-earners.
“If something isn’t working, we’re not dumb, we’ll change it,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said on RTL radio on Wednesday, saying the wealth tax would be evaluated.
Macron, a former investment banker, was heckled late 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 percent.
The 40-year-old made scrapping the “fortune tax” one of his key campaign pledges ahead of his election in May 2017, arguing that such levies on the wealthy discouraged job creation and drove entrepreneurs to leave the country.
Griveaux stressed that reinstating the ISF “is not on the table for now,” but Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa said she would argue to bring it back unless the tax cut could be shown to be effective.
“The government has been too technocratic and took too long to respond” to the protests, she told France 3 television Tuesday.
U-turn on taxes
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 such as a further cut in residence taxes possible.
But experts say they believe 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,” sociologist Jean-Francois Amadieu from the Paris I university told AFP.
Raymond Soubie, another expert on French protest groups who worked under former rightwing president Nicolas Sarkozy, said that “the biggest question is whether public opinion continues to support the yellow vests.”
A poll on Tuesday found that 71 percent of French people were behind them, but the same proportion believed that the movement should stop if the government backed down on fuel tax hikes.
Many “yellow vest” protesters, named after the high-visibility jackets they wear, said that Philippe’s rollback was not enough and have called for new protests this Saturday.
Two truck driver unions have also called an indefinite sympathy strike to begin 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.
Farmers will also consider later Wednesday whether to mount a day of demonstrations and possibly road blockades next week, the head of the FNSEA agricultural union said.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner on Tuesday urged “responsible” protesters not to come to the capital after crowds ran amok last Saturday, burning more than 200 cars, vandalising shops and leaving the Arc de Triomphe daubed in graffiti.
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 police.
Amid his domestic woes, Macron also saw his “friend” US President Donald Trump weigh in on Twitter. Trump said protesters were disavowing Macron’s adherence to the 2015 Paris climate accord.
“The Paris Agreement is fatally flawed because it raises the price of energy for responsible countries while whitewashing some of the worst polluters… in the world,” Trump wrote.