Tuesday 17 September 2019

French fuel tax protests ‘smaller but more violent’

In a third day of actions, protesters blocked oil depots with their vehicles and disrupted English Channel traffic.

Demonstrators protest in Bayonne (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
Demonstrators protest in Bayonne (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

By Associated Press Reporters

Fuel tax protests in France are choking facilities critical to the economy and police have orders to remove drivers blocking sensitive sites, the interior minister has said.

In a third day of actions, protesters blocked oil depots with their vehicles and disrupted English Channel traffic in a bid to keep up pressure on President Emmanuel Macron’s government.

Interior minister Christophe Castaner said the demonstrations around France had grown smaller while yielding “a multiplication of violent acts, racist acts, anti-Semitic acts and vandalism” since Sunday.

Scattered road blockades have continued around France since mass protests over the tax increases on Saturday left one protester dead. A motorcyclist was critically injured, Mr Castaner added.

Protesters block a crossroads in Saint-Maximin (Claude Paris/AP)

Since the main protests on Saturday, 528 people have been injured — 17 seriously, the minister said. The figure did not include 92 police officers who were injured, two seriously.

He said 27,000 protesters blocking strategic traffic zones were active on Monday, far fewer than the nearly 300,000 counted on Saturday.

The government, under fire on other fronts and with Mr Macron’s popularity diving in polls, is walking a tightrope in dealing with protesters. Mr Castaner said thousands of security forces were deployed, mainly to protect the demonstrators.

The job of policing the protests was becoming more difficult and dangerous due to “the aggression and change in behaviour of demonstrators… systematically confronting security forces”, the minister said.

A demonstrator talks to a truck driver (Bob Edme/AP)

In the first sign of a get-tough response from the government, Mr Castaner said the right to protest did not trump the free movement of people and goods. Those who disrupt traffic will be punished, he warned, noting that an individual had already been convicted and sentenced to four months in prison.

Police were given orders to clear protesters away from fuel depots and other sensitive sites, three of which had been “liberated” so far, he said.

Protest representative Benjamin Cauchy said on France’s RMC radio that drivers blocked about 10 oil depots on Monday. They demanded a freeze on taxes that Mr Cauchy said disproportionately hurt the working class.

Protesters also blocked a highway leading to the tunnel used by Eurostar trains to Britain, Interior Ministry spokesman Frederic De Lanouvelle said.

About 30 people were arrested overnight as police worked to remove protesters, a security official said.

The protests reflect broader frustration with Mr Macron, whose government is sticking to the fuel tax rise as part of efforts to clean up the environment.

Protesters said they were raising money online for the family of the protester who was struck and killed by a panicked driver.

PA Media

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