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Friday 18 October 2019

France suspends fuel tax, but protesters vow to fight on

In a major U-turn for the government, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced that the planned increases would be postponed until the summer.

Protesters are vowing to carry on despite concessions from the French government (AP Photo/Claude Paris)
Protesters are vowing to carry on despite concessions from the French government (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

By Samuel Petrequin, Associated Press

The French government’s decision to suspend fuel tax and utility hikes has done little to appease protesters who vowed to fight on after rioting in Paris last weekend.

In a major U-turn for the government, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced in a live televised address that the planned increases, which were set to be introduced in January, would be postponed until the summer.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

The backpedalling by President Emmanuel Macron’s government appeared designed to calm the nation, coming three days after the worst unrest on the streets of Paris in decades.

“No tax is worth putting the nation’s unity in danger,” Mr Philippe said, just three weeks after insisting that the government would not change course in its determination to wean French consumers off polluting fossil fuels.

But demonstrations continued around the country on Tuesday.

Protesters wearing their signature fluorescent yellow vests kept blocking several fuel depots and, on a highway near the southern city of Aubagne, protesters took over a toll booth to let vehicles pass for free. They put up a sign by the side of the road reading “Macron dictator”.

Protesters opened toll gates on a motorway (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

“It’s a first step, but we will not settle for a crumb,” said Benjamin Cauchy, a protest leader.

In the nearby port city of Marseille, students clashed with police outside a high school. Student protests blocked or otherwise disrupted about 100 high schools around the country blocked or otherwise disrupted by student protests on Tuesday, according to the French Education Ministry. Many of the demonstrations were over a new university application system.

More protests are expected this weekend in Paris.

Last weekend, more than 130 people were injured and 412 arrested in the French capital. Shops were looted and cars torched in plush neighbourhoods around the famed Champs-Elysees Avenue.

A woman takes a snapshot of charred cars the day after a demonstration, near the Arc de Triomphe (AP)

The Arc de Triomphe, which is home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and was visited by world leaders last month to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, was sprayed with graffiti and vandalised.

“This violence must end,” Mr Philippe said.

Mr Philippe held crisis talks with representatives of major political parties on Monday, and met with Mr Macron, who cancelled a two-day trip to Serbia amid the most serious challenge to his presidency since his election in May 2017.

On Tuesday, Mr Philippe announced a freeze in electricity and natural gas prices until May 2019, and warned protesters against more disruptions.

A worker cleans graffiti reading ‘Macron resignation’ on the Arc de Triomphe (AP)

“If another day of protests takes place on Saturday, it should be authorised and should take place in calm,” he said. “The interior minister will use all means to ensure order is respected.”

A football match between Paris Saint-Germain and Montpellier, scheduled for Saturday in Paris, was postponed after police said they could not guarantee security there and at protests simultaneously.

The protests began last month with motorists upset over the fuel tax hike, but have grown to encompass a range of complaints, with protesters claiming that Mr Macron’s government does not care about the problems of ordinary people.

In all, four people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes or accidents stemming from the protests.

PA Media

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