A demonstrator stands in front of a makeshift barricade set up by the so-called yellow jackets to block the entrance of a fuel depot in Le Mans, western France, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2018, with banner reading “Stop the Government racket”. (AP Photo/David Vincent)

France bracing for more protests despite retreat on taxes

French government’s decision to suspend fuel tax and utility hikes Tuesday did little to appease protesters.

The concessions made by French president Emmanuel Macron’s government in a bid to stop the huge and violent anti-government demonstrations seemed on Wednesday to have failed to convince protesters, with trade unions and disgruntled farmers now threatening to join the fray.

A day after prime minister Edouard Philippe announced a suspension of planned fuel tax hikes that kicked off protests, the burgeoning “yellow vest” protest movement showed no sign of slowing down. Students opposed to a university application system remained mobilized, trucking unions called for a rolling strike and France’s largest farm union threatened to launch protests next week.

Trade unions have not played a role in the co-ordination of the improvised movement so far but are now trying to take advantage of the growing anger among the public. A joint statement from the CGT and FO trucking unions protesting a cut to overtime rates called for action from Sunday night and asked for an urgent meeting with Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne.

Although most of the fuel depots blocked by protesters have now been cleared, fuel shortages continued to hit several parts of France on Wednesday, with hundreds of petrol stations affected.

Wearing their signature yellow vests, demonstrators were back at toll booths on Wednesday to express their demands, ranging from income and pension rises to the dissolution of the national assembly.

“Of course I can understand their claims, they are legitimate,” said Thomas Tricottet, a protester at Tolbiac university in downtown Paris, where students took over the building and classes were cancelled.

“We need taxes, but they are not properly redistributed,” he told BFMTV station. “We obviously need to fight against this.”

Meanwhile, high school students union FIDL called for a “massive and general mobilization” on Thursday and urged Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer to step down.

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Put on the back foot, Philippe’s government opened the door for more concessions as spokesman Benjamin Griveaux did not exclude bringing back a wealth tax that was slashed soon after president Emmanuel Macron came to power in May 2017.

“If something isn’t working, we’re not dumb, we’ll change it,” Griveaux told RTL radio, adding however that “the issue is not on the table for now.”

Macron’s popularity has slumped to new lows since the first “yellow vest” demonstrations took place on Nov. 17. The former investment banker, who was elected after campaigning for deep pro-business economic reforms, is accused of being the “president for the rich” and of being estranged from the working classes.

Since returning from the G20 summit in Argentina, Macron has either remained in his palace residence or else shied away from speaking publicly about the protests that have created his biggest political crisis since taking office last May. On Tuesday night, he was booed and jeered as he travelled to a regional government headquarters that was torched by protesters last weekend.

By caving in to yellow vests’ demands on fuel taxes, Macron also lost credibility in the fight against climate change after leading the way with an aggressive environmental agenda and promising to drastically cut carbon emissions. U.S. President Donald Trump said Macron’s decision to delay the tax hikes justified his own decision to withdraw from an international climate accord.

“I am glad that my friend @EmmanuelMacron and the protestors in Paris have agreed with the conclusion I reached two years ago,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “The Paris Agreement is fatally flawed because it raises the price of energy for responsible countries while whitewashing some of the worst polluters…”

Samuel Petrequin, The Associated Press

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