French President Emmanuel Macron is to address his nation on Tuesday following persistent and sometimes violent protests over fuel taxes that are morphing into a movement against his business- and environment-friendly policies.
Paris saw clashes between police and demonstrators Saturday on the Champs-Elysees where barricades were set on fire, luxury shop windows smashed, and traffic lights uprooted. Some 30 people were injured and 101 arrested, police said.
The government blamed much of the violence on a small minority of “ultra-right” activists who shadowed the 8,000 demonstrators who were wearing the yellow, high-visibility vests that symbolise their week-long protests.
Bruno Le Maire, the economy minister, acknowledged Sunday that “the current crisis goes far beyond just a question of fuel”, adding that it was important that “work be better paid” to improve living standards.
“It is time to listen to the French,” he said on BFM television, suggesting that Macron would call for “grassroot debates” throughout the country on government policies.
The presidential palace said Macron would make a speech on Tuesday on ecological transition and was expected to address the protests.
Opposition leaders have been quick to note that the protests, mostly organised by grassroot protesters coordinating by way of social media rather than by traditional political parties or trade unions, have won wide popular support.
“When a movement has the backing of three quarters of French people, you give them an answer, you don’t just dismiss them as a gang of thugs,” Olivier Faure, the opposition Socialist Party leader told Le Parisien newspaper.
Guillaume Peltier, a leader of conservative The Republicans party, told the daily it was “all too easy to stigmatise the ‘yellow vests’ … and equate their movement with that of a few unacceptable acts”.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen voiced her full support for the protesters, telling the LCI channel the unrest revealed grievances held by “the immense majority of the French” who were being ignored by “a miniscule cast working only for itself”.
Former investment banker Macron was elected on a pledge to put more money in workers’ pockets. But the effects of his pro-business reforms on unemployment and purchasing power have been limited so far.
He has seen his popularity slide to just 25 percent, according to one poll a week ago, and the protests reflect broader frustration with a leader critics label as aloof and a “president of the rich”.
US President Donald Trump, whose initial friendly ties with Macron have chilled under the French leader’s criticisms, sought to place the French protests in his frequent grumbling over US-EU trade relations and NATO spending.
“The large and violent French protests don’t take into account how badly the United States has been treated on Trade by the European Union or on fair and reasonable payments for our GREAT military protection,” Trump said on Twitter. “Both of these topics must be remedied soon.”
Macron himself had taken to Twitter on Saturday, to condemn the violence and cry “shame” on those who assaulted or intimidated policemen, journalists and other citizens.
Several media workers based in France’s southwestern city of Toulouse said Sunday they would boycott the “yellow vests” movement after five journalists were threatened or beaten by scores of demonstrators while covering protests in their region.
Faced with the public anger, many politicians suggested Macron — often perceived as aloof or arrogant — might use his speech to announce measures softening the impact of rising petrol and diesel taxes and restore dialogue with trade unions.
“When you act like Louis XIV, you can expect revolts (…) The French back the ‘yellow vests’ because Macron promised them a new world, and they see that his policies aren’t delivering,” Bruno Retailleau, who heads the Republican opposition in the Senate.
The French “see environmental matters as an alibi for fiscal belt-tightening,” he told le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.
The “yellow vests” come overwhelmingly from non-urban areas of France. They feel overlooked and penalised by policies they see as being pushed through by elitist politicians in Paris.
Many of the often low-income “yellow vest” protesters are particularly incensed at Macron’s decision to hike anti-pollution taxes on diesel, while scrapping a wealth tax on the rich.