France suspends fuel tax hikes amid ‘yellow vest’ protests

PM announces six-month halt to fuel tax hikes after protests against measure sparked Paris’ worst rioting in decades.

France Prime Minister Edouard Philippe
Edouard Philippe said the concessions must bring 'calm and serenity' back to France [Ludovic Marin/ AFP]

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has announced a six-month moratorium on planned tax hikes on fuel in response to weeks of nationwide protests against high pump prices and living costs. 

Philippe said on Tuesday that he hoped the measure would “bring calm and serenity back to” France and “enable real dialogue” on the concerns of the so-called “yellow-vest” protesters.

The demonstrations, which began on November 17, sparked on Saturday Paris’ worst rioting in decades, with protesters clashing with police, setting fire to vehicles and looting shops around the capital’s famed Champs Elysees avenue.

In his address, Philippe said the anger on the streets “originates from a profound injustice: of not being able to live with dignity from one’s work.”

“The French who have donned yellow vests want taxes to drop, and work to pay. That’s also what we want,” he said, adding: “No tax is worth putting the nation’s unity in danger.”

He also announced that increases in the cost of gas and electricity, which were also set to take effect from January 1, would be suspended for three months during the winter months.

Philippe added that a tightening of the technical assessment for cars, which was set to penalise heavily polluting older vehicles, would also be halted for six months.

The yellow vest protests were originally spurred by a squeeze on household spending brought about by President Emmanuel Macron‘s taxes on diesel, which he says are necessary to combat climate change and protect the environment.

However, they have since evolved into a bigger, general anti-Macron uprising, with many criticising the president for pursuing policies they claim favour the richest members of French society.

‘First step’

The concessions on Tuesday marked Macron’s first significant U-turn on a major policy since he assumed office in 2017.

The demonstrations have been given the “yellow vest” tag due to the fluorescent jackets kept in all vehicles in France, and are estimated to have cost millions to the economy. 

Benjamin Chaucy, one of the leaders of the protests, welcomed the move, saying: “It’s a first step, but we will not settle for a crumb.”

Prominent Socialist figure Segolene Royal, a former candidate for president, lauded Philippe’s decision but said it came too late.

“This decision should have been taken from the start, as soon as the conflict emerged,” she said.

“We felt it was going to be very, very hard because we saw the rage, the exasperation, especially from retirees. They should have withdrawn [the tax hikes] right away. The more you let a conflict fester, the more you eventually have to concede.”

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen lashed out at the decision as too little, tweeting that it was “obviously not up to the expectations of the French people struggling with precarity”.

French ambulance drivers hold blue, white, red smoke bombs during a demonstration at the Place de la Concorde in Paris
French ambulance drivers hold blue, white, red smoke bombs during a demonstration at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, France, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Four people have been killed in the three-week-long protests, including an 80-year-old woman who died in hospital on Sunday after being hit by a tear gas canister in Marseille.

Protests in Paris on Saturday turned particularly violent, with the Arc de Triomphe defaced and avenues off the capital’s Champs Elysees suffering damage. More than 100 people were injured in the violence. 

Paris police said 412 people were arrested during the clashes in Paris on Saturday and 363 remained in custody, according to the latest figures.

Macron and Philippe’s approval ratings hit new lows in the wake of the crisis, according to an Ifop-Fiducial poll for Paris Match and Sud Radio that was published on Tuesday.

The president’s approval rating fell to 23 percent in the poll conducted late last week, down six points from the previous month, while the prime minister’s rating fell 10 points to 26 percent. 

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies