French President Emmanuel Macron has announced a range of conciliatory measures aimed at appeasing “yellow vest” protesters, including increasing the minimum wage and cancelling a planned social security tax hike for pensioners earning less than 2,000 euros ($2,272).
While acknowledging on Monday he may have “hurt” people with some of his statements, Macron refused to reinstate a wealth tax and to back down on his reform agenda, which he said would proceed in 2019 with overhauls of pensions, unemployment benefits and public expenditures.
“We will respond to the economic and social urgency with strong measures, by cutting taxes more rapidly, by keeping our spending under control, but not with U-turns,” he said in a televised address, his first public comments in nine days.
In measures that are likely to cost billions to state coffers, Macron said people on the minimum wage would see their salaries rise by 100 euros ($113.76) a month in 2019 without extra costs to employers.
His labour minister said this would be achieved by government topping up small salaries.
“We want a France where we can live with dignity,” said Macron.
The 40-year-old leader, who beat far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a presidential runoff last year, said his government will also ask private employers to pay their workers year-end bonuses if they are able to.
His response came 48 hours after protesters fought street battles with riot police, torching cars and looting shops – the fourth weekend of protests for the so-called “yellow vest” movement which started as a revolt against high fuel costs.
The month-long campaign of nationwide road blockades and weekend protests in Paris, three of which degenerated into destruction and looting, have taken a toll on the French economy with an estimated $1.5bn in losses.
Macron faced a delicate task: he needed to persuade the middle class and blue-collar workers that he heard their anger over a squeeze on household spending, without being exposed to charges of caving in to street politics.
The former investment banker was also under pressure to make amends about cutting remarks he has made about the costs of welfare that critics say made him look aloof and arrogant.
“No doubt over the past year and a half we have not provided answers that were strong and quick enough. I take my share of responsibility,” he said.
“I may have given the impression that I did not care about that, that I had other priorities. I also know that I have hurt some of you with my words.”
Political opponents, who have largely failed so far to tap into the discontent from the leaderless “yellow vest” movement, slammed his response as insufficient.
“Emmanuel Macron thought he could hand out some cash to calm the citizen’s insurrection that has erupted,” Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the far-left La France Insoumise, said.
“I believe that Act V [of the protests] will play out on Saturday,” he said, referring to a new round of protests planned this weekend.
One of the faces of the “yellow vest” movement appeared unconvinced, as well.
“In terms of substance, these are half measures. We can feel that Macron has got a lot more to give,” Benjamin Cauchy, who met the French leader last week, told France 2 television.
In an attempt to quell the revolt, the government agreed last week to cancel the planned increase in anti-pollution fuel taxes.
But the move was seen as too little, too late.