Friday 14 December 2018

Protesters joined by unions to reject French concessions

France’s largest farmers union said it will launch protests next week, after trucking unions called for a rolling strike.

Demonstrators stand near toll gates on a motorway at Biarritz (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
Demonstrators stand near toll gates on a motorway at Biarritz (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

By Samuel Petrequin, Associated Press

Trade unions and farmers have pledged to join nationwide protests against President Emmanuel Macron, as concessions by the government failed to stem the momentum of the most violent demonstrations France has seen in decades.

The “yellow vest” protests began over a plan to raise fuel taxes, but by the time prime minister Edouard Philippe bowed to three weeks of violence and suspended the plan on Tuesday, the protesters were demanding much more.

Students set fires outside high schools to protest against a new university application system, small business owners blocked roads in a campaign against high taxes, and pensioners marched to protest over the president’s perceived elitism.

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Demonstrators at toll gates on a motorway in Biarritz (Bob Edme/AP)

On Wednesday, France’s largest farming union said it will launch protests next week, after trucking unions called for a rolling strike.

Trade unions have not so far played a role in the improvised movement, but are now trying to capitalise on the growing public anger.

A joint statement from the CGT and FO trucking unions called for action beginning on Sunday night to protest over a cut in overtime rates, and asked for an urgent meeting with the transport minister.

Farmers union FNSEA said it would fight to help farmers earn a better income, though it said it would not officially be joining forces with the “yellow vests”, as the protesters have come to be called after the high-visibility vests French motorists are required to keep in their cars, and which they don for demonstrations.

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French riot police outside Paris (Michel Euler/AP)

French police have cleared most of the fuel depots that protesters had blocked, but fuel shortages continued to hit several parts of France on Wednesday, with hundreds of fuel stations affected.

Demonstrators were also blocking toll booths, letting drivers pass without paying, to press demands that ranged from income and pension rises to the dissolution of the National Assembly, France’s parliament.

At Tolbiac University in central Paris, students took over a school building and classes were cancelled.

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Students gather at the closed Tobiac university in Paris (Christophe Ena/AP)

High school students’ union FIDL called for a “massive and general mobilisation” on Thursday and urged the education minister to step down.

One student was injured during protests in front of a high school in Saint-Jean-de-Braye in north-central France.

BFM said he was shot in the head with a rubber bullet, although authorities did not immediately confirm that.

Julien Guiller, head of communication at the regional school administration, said the student was expected to survive.

The government was clearly on the back foot. A day after announcing a six-month suspension of the fuel tax rises, it opened the door for more concessions as spokesman Benjamin Griveaux did not rule out bringing back a wealth tax that was slashed soon after Mr Macron came to power in May 2017.

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Emmanuel Macron (Gustavo Garello/AP)

“If something isn’t working, we’re not dumb — we’ll change it,” Mr Griveaux told RTL radio, though he said “the issue is not on the table for now”.

Mr Macron’s popularity has slumped to new lows since the first demonstrations took place on November 17.

The former investment banker, who campaigned for deep pro-business economic reforms, is accused of being the “president for the rich” and of being estranged from the working classes.

Since returning from the G20 summit in Argentina over the weekend, his actions have done little to change that perception.

He has refrained from speaking publicly about the protests, and has largely remained in his palace residence.

On Tuesday night, he was booed and jeered as he travelled to a regional government headquarters that was torched by protesters last weekend.

An activist among those leading the protests said he fears more deaths if Saturday’s demonstration goes ahead, and called for Mr Macron to speak out and bring calm.

“If not there will be chaos,” Christophe Chalencon said.

Mr Chalencon, a 52-year-old blacksmith from Vaucluse in southern France, said the public needs Mr Macron to “admit he made a mistake, with simple words … that touch the guts and heart of the French”.

Press Association

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