‘Moment of truth’ for Macron as protests hit French economy

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

Macron will address the nation at 7pm (GMT) after three weeks of anti-government demonstrations which again turned violent Saturday in Paris and other cities.

The stakes are high for the 40-year-old centrist, who has not spoken publicly about the unrest in over a week, leaving it to his government to try tamp down the anger — much of it aimed at the president himself.

READ MORE: French government yields on fuel price hikes after weeks of protest

Macron is facing a “moment of truth,” the Parisien newspaper said in its leading headline Monday, warning that if he fails to appease the anger, “France will enter a dangerous period of political instability.”

On the economic front, the protesters’ nationwide campaign of road blockades, coupled with the looting and vandalism seen during weekend protests in Paris and other cities, has dealt a heavy blow to the retail and hospitality sector.

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

“We can’t recover this,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on RTL radio Monday. “That’s the reality, for businesses, shop owners whose stores were damaged, vandalised or looted on Saturday.”

Le Maire added that he was in favour of accelerating tax cuts in response to the protests — one of the demands voiced during the past month.

Government officials say Macron will announce “immediate and concrete measures” to respond to the grievances, although he is not expected to rescind his partial repeal of a “wealth tax” on high earners, a particular source of protesters’ ire.

Riots and arrests 

Calls have multiplied across the political spectrum for drastic action, with former far-right presidential rival Marine Le Pen urging Macron to “recognise society’s suffering and deliver immediate, very strong responses”.

“It is clear that we underestimated people’s need to make themselves heard,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told Europe 1 radio on Sunday.

Yet Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud rejected the idea of an increase in the minimum wage — another demand from many protesters who say they are barely scraping by.

“If we raise all salaries automatically, many businesses would just go bust — or they would have to raise their prices, and no one would pay for their services,” Penicaud said Sunday.

The “yellow vests”, clad in the luminous safety jackets carried by law in all French cars, began slowing or blocking traffic on roads around the country on November 17 in protest against anti-pollution fuel tax hikes.

The demonstrations have since snowballed, leading to calls to topple Macron, whom the protesters accuse of favouring the rich and disparaging people struggling to make ends meet in rural and small-town France.

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.

Authorities in Paris said that while the city was spared the mayhem seen a week earlier the damage covered a wider area, with cars torched, bus shelters smashed and shops vandalised in several neighbourhoods.

Some 10 000 protesters — most of them peaceful — took to the streets.

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

The government launched a massive security operation this time around however in a bid to minimise the unrest, deploying 8 000 police and armoured vehicles in Paris and detaining more than 1 000 people nationwide.

Further climbdowns? 

Elected in May 2017 on a promise to revitalise the sluggish French economy, Macron had previously vowed that, unlike his predecessors, he would not be swayed by mass protests.

But last week his government announced a climbdown on fuel tax increases for January — the spark that had ignited the “yellow vest” protests — and further concessions appear to be on the cards.

The president is meeting Monday with trade unions and business leaders to try to find a way out of the deepest crisis yet for the former investment banker, who has struggled to shake off his reputation as a “president of the rich.”

“He’s going to have to (find) a strong response, and he’s going to have to show a lot of empathy, because we’re hearing lots of complaints about the president’s personality,” Laurent Berger of the CFDT union told LCI television Monday.

The protesters hail mainly from provincial France but have a range of different goals — from lower taxes, to a higher minimum wage, to Macron’s resignation — making his negotiations with them all the more difficult.

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Joseph Schmid
Joseph Schmid
France correspondent for @AFP

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