PARIS • One protester was knocked down by a car and died, and a series of road accidents were scattered across France on Saturday as tensions mounted during the morning hours of grassroots protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to raise petrol prices.
The protester was taking part in a road blockade in Savoie, south-eastern France, and the driver has been taken in custody, according to the Interior Ministry. Another person was severely hurt in Arras, northern France, and more than a dozen people were injured in other accidents, AFP reported. More than 2,000 rallies are taking place across the country, gathering about 124,000 protesters, according to Interior Minister Christophe Castaner’s second assessment.
Macron is facing possibly the biggest demonstrations of his 18 months in office. Opposition parties have egged on a grassroots movement threatening to block traffic across France to express anger over higher petrol prices.
Macron has so far been spared the kind of protests his predecessors have faced. Street demonstrations against the labour market liberalisation pushed through by Macron shortly after his May 2017 elections never gathered critical size to worry the government. Further, rail strikes last Spring, though causing some disruptions, fizzled out as the government pressed ahead with a reform of the state train system, which eventually passed Parliament.
“Our level of concern is at maximal level,” Castaner said, cited by AFP. He asked demonstrators to “take all safety and prevention measures”. The minister stressed that “the right to demonstrate is essential in this country, it must be protected, but one must also ensure that the minimal organisation of this protest avoids a tragedy of this kind”.
The government had said it won’t bar any protests, but it wouldn’t allow any roads to be blocked. More importantly, it’s not backing down on higher petrol taxes, which it sees as part of its long-term goal of weaning France off fossil fuel.
“Diesel is bad for our health, it’s bad for our economy, so of course we’re not retreating on these taxes,” Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin said last Friday on BFM TV. “There are people who face difficulty in this country and we’re listening.”
A petition on Change.org calling for lower petrol taxes has about 860,000 signatures. A website www.blocage17novembre.com lists planned protests in all of France’s 95 mainland departments.
The movement, which has branded itself “gilets jaunes” — after the yellow safety vests drivers need to keep in their cars — blames higher taxes on fossil fuels for rising prices at the pump.
Opposition parties have tried to associate themselves with the movement, while not necessarily opposing the government’s goal of shifting towards cleaner energy. “This government hasn’t understood the anger of the French,” Socialist Party secretary general Olivier Faure said in a statement last Wednesday. The president “hasn’t listened to the French people”, the leader of the Republicans, Laurent Wauquiez, said in a tweet on Nov 1, adding that he’ll take part in the protests. “We were the first party to express our total support for this movement,” said nationalist leader Marine Le Pen in an interview on Nov 13 with Le Parisien.
Yet, unions have largely given the movement a cold shoulder. Communist- backed CGT leader Philippe Martinez said last Friday that his union won’t be part of the blockades, due mostly to the participation of Le Pen’s far-right party Rassemblement National. Martinez said some businesses are supportive of the grassroots movement as they seek lower social charges.
Macron, asked about the movement during an interview on France’s aircraft carrier last Wednesday evening, said he “hears the anger” but said he was “wary because many different people are trying to piggyback on this movement”. In earlier interviews, he has said he prefers taxing fuel to taxing labour.
Diesel prices at the pump in France have risen 16% this year to an average €1.48 (RM7) a litre, though the price did hit €1.53 in early October, according UFIP, the French oil industry federation. Petrol is up 5% to €1.47 per litre, after peaking at €1.57.
Taxes account for about 60% of the price at the pump in France. The government increased its hydrocarbon tax at the start of the year by 7.6 cents per litre on diesel and 3.9 cents to petrol, and a new boost at the start of next year will add another 6.5 cents per litre of diesel and 2.9 cents per litre of petrol, part of an effort to bring diesel and petrol taxes in line.
An Elabe poll released on Nov 14 said 73% of the French approve of the protests and 70% think the government should roll back recent gas tax increases. Several videos by angry drivers have gone viral on social media.
In a bid to alleviate the “yellow vests’” concerns, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Nov 14 doubled the public incentives to buy cleaner cars or boilers to up to €4,000 a car. Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said last Friday the government will present a bill to subsidise car-pooling.
France is trying to end its addiction to diesel, fuelled by decades of government support. Diesel once represented three-quarters of cars sold in France, but the ratio has declined to just below 40% as it progressively lost its tax advantage. Contrary to its reputation for public transport, about 70% of the French drive to work everyday, according to state statistical unit Insee, compared to about 76% in the US.
Environmental party Generation Ecologie leader Delphine Batho last Friday said the movement should demand cheaper clean cars rather than asking for lower oil prices. “I won’t demonstrate tomorrow because I don’t take part in any demonstration that stands for the oil lobby,” she said.