French president Emmanuel Macron was forced to make a humiliating and unprecedented climbdown on Tuesday in the face of continuing street protests. He left it to prime minister Edouard Philippe to announce measures including a six-month suspension of price hikes on petrol and diesel.
But initial reaction from the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, the movement behind anti-government protests across the country, indicated the policy reversal might be too little too late.
Philippe began by acknowledging the long-simmering anger of much of the French population. “One would have to be deaf and blind not to see it, not to hear it,” he said.
On December 1st, the third march in as many weeks descended into rioting that ravaged much of central Paris. Four people have died in the protests.
In line with traditional French indulgence towards political violence, Philippe said the anger was that of “hard-working France , which has a hard time making ends meet, of French people who have their back against the wall, of mothers raising children alone. This anger has its source in a profound injustice. That of not being able to live decently from the fruit of one’s labour”.
The long-ignored yellow vests had suddenly become “French people who love their country”, who “want taxes to go down and work to pay”.
That was also the government’s goal, Philippe said. “If I did not succeed in expressing that, if the majority found it difficult to convince the French, we must change something.”
The government has enacted measures for the disadvantaged, including lowering the habitation tax and social charges, and a scheduled 3 per cent rise in the minimum wage, Philippe noted. But those measures have remained invisible and inaudible to a large segment of the population who view Macron as the “president of the rich”.
A year ago, Macron staged a “One Planet Summit” in Paris. In line with France’s commitment to reduce greenhouse emissions, he programmed a 2.9 cents per litre rise in the price of petrol, and a 6.5 cents per litre rise for diesel from January 1st.
Now, to the chagrin of environmentalists, the carbon tax will be “suspended” for six months. Philippe’s promise that the taxes “will not be applied before being debated by all parties involved” implied they may never happen.
The government also renounced aligning prices for petrol and diesel. For years, the buyers of diesel vehicles were given bonuses, in the mistaken belief that it was less polluting.
The government is suspending more thorough motor vehicle tests, another grievance of the yellow vests. A scheduled rise in home heating costs has also been suspended. Commuters will be given a “mobility bonus”. The government will invest more in housing, and “open a broad debate on taxes and public spending”.
Measures promised by Philippe will cost the state at least €2 billion.
But will it be enough? Yellow vest supporters said it might have been, earlier, but they were too angry to turn back now. Many demand restoration of the pre-Macron wealth tax.
“They’ve already tricked us by claiming to hear us, then ignoring us completely,” was a typical reaction on the France Info website.
“Suspending doesn’t mean cancelling,” wrote another. “The government must expect a hardening of the movement.”
Macron on Tuesday visited the prefecture that was burned by rioters at Puy-en-Velay, upper Loire, to express support for civil servants there. About 20 demonstrators gathered outside and jeered him with cries of “Macron resign” on his departure. Protesters pursued his motorcade until bodyguards got out to confront them.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the May ’68 revolutionary, former MEP and a friend of Macron, told France Inter radio that the president “must question himself. He has the ability and the agility to do so. He must fundamentally question his practice of power”.
The measures announced by Philippe would not be enough, Cohn-Bendit predicted. “Now the president has to say where he is going, where we must go. He has to put everything on the table” including partial abrogation of the wealth tax.
Macron is paying for his lack of political experience, Cohn-Bendit said. “You can’t always be first in the class. You have to say, ‘Maybe, even if I was right, if it doesn’t work you have to replace it.’ You have to find a solution to calm people in the face of inequality.”
France waits to see what will happen on Saturday, when the yellow vests have called for a fourth nationwide demonstration. Philippe said the marches “must be declared [in advance] and must take place peacefully”.
At the request of the Paris prefecture, a football match between Paris St Germain and Montpellier, a televised benefit for rare diseases and the annual “Animals’ Christmas,” all scheduled for Saturday, have been cancelled.
Speaking before the Senate later in the day, interior minister Christophe Castaner appealed to “reasonable yellow vests not to gather in Paris on Saturday”.