Yellow vest protests a litmus test for Macron

By Louise Ho Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/5 18:38:42

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

France has seen waves of protests called gilets jaunes (yellow vests) since November 17, so called because it is mandatory for French car drivers to carry a yellow jacket in the vehicle for safety reasons. Protesters, mostly car drivers, have used the vests as their symbol during violent demonstrations that buffeted Paris for days, forcing President Emmanuel Macron to roll back a planned fuel price hike.

The protests started against the government's proposed tax hike on diesel, the most commonly used fuel in French cars, from January 1, 2019. Over last year, the price of diesel increased 23 percent to 1.51 euros ($1.71) per liter in France, the highest in 10 years. Taxes on diesel were also increased this year.

The protests have become an expression of the public's longstanding grievances over high cost of living and decreasing purchasing power. They can't afford to pay extra taxes any more, which forced them to take to the streets leading to a flare-up.

The protests last Saturday turned into the worst riot in Paris in the last decade. Protestors torched cars and vandalized stores. Even the French Republic's sacred symbol, the statue of Marianne at the Arc de Triomphe museum, was smashed. Rioting in the city of lights injured 113, including 23 police officers. More than 400 protestors were arrested.

No one would have thought a year ago that such protests, which largely spread due to social media, would consume the French capital. The demonstrations that drew international headlines were not organized by unions or political parties.

French voters had placed high hopes in Macron, the youngest French president who promised them higher salaries and better lives. But 18 months on, indignant people feel their lives have not improved as Macron faces his biggest political crisis.

Macron's moves over the span of 18 months paved the way for the protests. The first step he took at the start of his term by scrapping tax on rich people (Impôt de Solidarité sur la Fortune or ISF) was widely criticized. The step saw the public exchequer lose 3.2 billion euros ($3.6 billion) for the highest income group.

Although the ISF was meant to be a tax sop for investors in France, the public saw it as a gift to the richest. At the same time, Macron took away 5 euros per month from rent subsidy for students and low-income people. The French leader due to the way he talks sends the message that he is arrogant and apathetic to the plight of the poor.

Macron has a vision about the green future of France, which is why he increased tax on diesel to fund future policies on tackling climate change. But the French want him to first address the more pressing issue of high living costs.

Although the protests became violent, about 80 percent of French people are still sympathetic to the protestors' grouse of rising cost of living with static salaries. The minimum wage has only gone up marginally, which is not enough to offset less welfare and more tax.

My French husband shares the gripes of protestors but chooses to protest by voting. In five years, if he is still not happy with Macron's performance, he will vote for someone else. Many people he knows think alike.

He's also concerned about the state of the French police. Officers have been on high alert for the past three weekends. It costs a lot of manpower and money to have officers on duty at the same time. Not to mention how seriously businesses have been affected and the image of Paris tarnished by protests.

How to end the yellow vest protests is a big test for the Macron administration, especially with Christmas only a few weeks away. In the latest development, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced Tuesday that the fuel tax hike would be suspended to quell the unrest.

But the French government's response came too late as protestors are still not satisfied and now weekly protests will go ahead for Saturday. The protests have shaken the Macron administration and will have an impact on how the French society moves forward.

The author is a freelance journalist based in Paris.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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