Moment of truth for Macron in ‘yellow vest’ showdown

Published December 11, 2018, 7:47 AM

by Patrick Garcia

By Agence France-Presse

Embattled French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to offer fresh concessions on Monday to try end the “yellow vest” protests that have shaken the country and taken a heavy toll on its economy.

France's so-called 'yellow vest' protesters accuse President Emmanuel Macron of being a 'president of the rich' (AFP Photo/SYLVAIN THOMAS/ MANILA BULLETIN)
France’s so-called ‘yellow vest’ protesters accuse President Emmanuel Macron of being a ‘president of the rich’ (AFP Photo/SYLVAIN THOMAS/ MANILA BULLETIN)

Macron will address the nation on television at 8:00 pm (1900 GMT) after three weeks of anti-government demonstrations which again turned violent Saturday in Paris and other cities.

With the protesters vowing to remain at the barricades until their demands are met, Macron’s first public remarks on the crisis in over a week are being billed as the most important of his presidency.

On Monday, he held four hours of crisis talks at the presidential palace with government ministers, parliamentary leaders, business and labour representatives and regional officials.

“No measure was announced, the president just listened to us. What we heard is that we can look forward to something concrete and solid”, Herve Morin, head of an association of French regions, said on leaving the meeting.

‘New French model’
Richard Ferrand, the head of the National Assembly and one of Macron’s closest allies, said the president would “give us some short-term answers along with his views on how to rebuild a new French model”.

Le Parisien newspaper hailed the speech as Macron’s “moment of truth” on its cover Monday, warning that if he failed to appease the anger, “France will enter a dangerous period of political instability”.

Elected in May 2017 on a promise to revitalise the sluggish French economy, Macron had voted not to be swayed by street protests.

In an attempt to quell the revolt, the government agreed last week to cancel a planned increase in anti-pollution fuel taxes — the spark behind the protests in car-dependent rural and suburban France.

But the move was seen as too little, too late by the protesters, who held a fourth round of protests on Saturday to press for further concessions on reducing inequality.

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.

The central bank on Monday halved its fourth-quarter growth forecast to just 0.2 percent from 0.4 percent — far below the 0.8 percent growth needed to meet the government’s full-year target of 1.7 percent.

“We can’t recover this,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on RTL radio Monday

Government officials said Macron will announce “immediate and concrete measures” in a bid to defuse the situation.

Le Maire said that he was in favour of accelerating tax cuts — one of the demands of the working- and middle classes protesters.

No repeal of wealth tax
But Macron is not expected to rescind his partial repeal of a wealth tax on high earners, a particular source of protesters’ ire.

Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud also rejected their calls for an increase in the minimum wage.

“If we raise all salaries automatically, many businesses would just go bust,” she warned.

The “yellow vests” — named after the luminous safety jackets they wear — began slowing or blocking traffic on roads around the country on November 17 in protest over rising fuel prices they blamed on government taxes.

The demonstrations have since snowballed, leading to calls to topple Macron, whom the protesters accuse of favouring the rich.

Looting and rioting, blamed mostly on far-left and far-right agitators, has repeatedly broken out in Paris, spreading to Bordeaux, Toulouse, and other cities at the weekend.

Nationwide, an estimated 136,000 people turned out for protests — the same number as a week previously.

Some 1,000 people were detained in a massive security operation to prevent a repeat of the chaos seen in Paris on December 1, though most were released by the day’s end.

 Protests continue
On Monday, protests continued up and down the country, including near Vichy, central France, where a tax office was padlocked by “yellow vests” who also stopped trucks going in and out of a L’Oreal cosmetics factory.

High school students also continued to demonstrate in and around their schools, forcing 40 of them to close.

The students have latched on to the “yellow vest” movement to protest educational reforms, along with plans by Macron to reintroduce a month-long “national service” for young people aged 16 or 17.