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PRINT EDITION
France suspends fuel-tax hikes in face of 'yellow vest' protests
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Macron government takes major U-turn in effort to appease a movement that has radicalized Paris and plunged it into chaos
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By SIMON CARRAUD, MICHEL ROSE
REUTERS
  
  

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Wednesday, December 5, 2018 – Page A8

PARIS -- 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 in 18 months in office.

In announcing the decision, Prime Minister Édouard 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 Mr. Macron has defended as critical to combatting 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," Mr. Philippe said.

"No tax is worth jeopardizing the unity of the nation."

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

Earlier officials had hinted at a possible increase to the minimum wage, but Mr. 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 tax-take falls then spending must fall, because we don't want to pass our debts on to our children. And those debts are already sizable," he said.

The measures will cost about 2-billion ($3-billion), but will be offset by corresponding spending cuts, a government source said.

What's known as the "yellow vest" movement, which started on Nov. 17 as a social-media protest group named for the highvisibility jackets all motorists in France carry in their cars, began with the aim of highlighting the squeeze on household spending brought about by Mr. 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 favour 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 Mr. Macron's leadership.

Over the past two days, ambulance drivers and students have joined in and launched their own protests.

Two unions, CGT and FO, called lorry drivers to start a strike from Dec. 9, while several Facebook pages were also urging new rounds of demonstrations for next Saturday.

After three weeks of rising frustration, there was scant indication Mr. 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," a "yellow vest" spokesman, Benjamin Cauchy told BFM, adding that the movement wanted a cancellation of the taxes.

Another one, Christophe Chalencon, was more blunt: "We're being taken for idiots," he said, using a stronger expletive.

The timing of the tax U-turn is uncomfortable for Mr. Macron. It comes as governments meet in Poland to try to agree to measures to avert the most damaging consequences of global warming, an issue Mr. 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.

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.

On Saturday, the Arc de Triomphe national monument was defaced and avenues off the Champs-Élysées were damaged.

Cars, buildings and some cafés 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.

Mr. Macron, a 40-year-old former investment banker and economy minister, came to office in mid-2017 promising to overhaul the economy, revitalize growth and draw foreign investment by making the country 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 Mr. 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 Mélenchon has been rising. Mr. 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.

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

Associated Graphic

'Yellow vest' protesters stand in front of a makeshift barricade they set up to block the entrance of a fuel depot in Le Mans, western France, on Tuesday. DAVID VINCENT/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A demonstrator holds a placard calling for the removal of tolls as 'yellow vests' open the gates on motorway near Biarritz, southwestern France, on Tuesday. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe says that a newly announced freeze on fuel-tax increases would be used in part to discuss measures that could help the country's poor and middle-class. BOB EDME/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Above: A warning ribbon prevents cars from entering a gas station, as the more than two-week-long 'yellow vest' protests impact fuel reserves and distribution in Nantes. STEPHANE MAHE/REUTERS

Right: Demonstrators open toll gates near Aix-en-Provence. CLAUDE PARIS/AP

Members of Parliament attend a government question session at the National Assembly in Paris on Tuesday. THIBAULT CAMUS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Above: Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, centre, arrives to announce the fuel-tax suspension in Paris on Tuesday. LUDOVIC MARIN/GETTY IMAGES

A toll sits in ruin on the highway after the evacuation of a 'yellow vest' blockade by riot police on Nov. 21, the fifth day of a countrywide movement against the planned increases in fuel and oil prices. NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

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