By SYLVIE CORBET
PARIS (AP) — France’s prime minister, Edouard Philippe, will meet Friday with representatives of some of the protesters who over two weeks have demonstrated, sometimes violently, against rising fuel taxes.
The government’s move comes amid calls for new protests on Saturday across France, including on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, where a demonstration last weekend degenerated into violence.
Shopkeepers on the French capital’s famed avenue scrambled to prepare for new violence, bringing in workers to barricade boutique windows with boards. Decorative iron grates, used last week in barricades, were removed from around trees and outdoor terraces were dismantled.
“It’s as if there was a war. It’s incredible,” said Paris resident Olivier Le Quellec. “We are sealing off the center of the village. It becomes a little ghetto. It’s frightening.”
Motorists protesting a fuel tax hike have been joined by farmers, white collar workers, retirees and others in the “yellow jackets” movement that now involves a broad range of demands related to the country’s high cost of living.
Their list of demands includes tax cuts, the creation of a citizens’ assembly, state-funded subsidies to help companies boost hiring, and higher pensions and a higher national minimum wage.
The “yellow jackets” name is a reference to the fluorescent security jackets the protesters wear and that are mandatory in French cars.
The protesters are using social media to organize, and a spokesman for France’s Union of National Police Chiefs said it was critical to be prepared for Saturday’s events.
“We can’t be naive. Tomorrow is a day of risks,” David Le Bars said on BFMTV.
The protests began to gain traction in neighboring Belgium as well, with dozens of “yellow jacket” demonstrators angry about high taxes and living costs causing traffic chaos in Brussels on Friday. They gathered near the Belgian government and the parliament, as police watched on with water cannon trucks parked nearby.
Anger in France has been fueled by a broadening range of issues related to the cost of living, rising prices and the high tax levels. Some are latching on to the events to also denounce the perceived elitism of President Emmanuel Macron, seen by some as being out of touch with ordinary people.
Recent polls show that up to 80 percent of people are sympathetic to the movement.
“Mr. Macron, you don’t deserve to eat my chickens,” poultry farmer Alois Gury said in a video made with his mobile phone, wearing a yellow jacket in his farm hangar as hens cackled. The video of the 33-year-old from eastern France quickly went viral this week on social media.
The chef at the Elysee presidential palace, Guillaume Gomez, has since said the farmer wasn’t among his suppliers.
Gury said he works 80 hours a week to earn just 700 euros ($790) a month.
“I’m in trouble … My mother is buying 50 euros ($56) in grocery shopping every Tuesday because I don’t have the money,” he said.
The farmer is just one example of the diversity of the movement and the breadth of anger at Macron.
Prominent figures among the “yellow jackets” include a truck driver living south of Paris who makes live videos on Facebook, a singer from southern France who wrote a humoristic song to tell Macron “we want to pay less” and a 33-year-old founder of an online cosmetic shop who launched an online petition for a fuel tax cut that reached 1 million signatures.
A 51-year-old accordion player from western France, Jacline Mouraud, is considered a precursor of the movement since she posted a video on Facebook in mid-October that has tallied over 6 million views.
She said motorist like her are unfairly targeted by the government with tax increases and other costs. “We are fed up!”
Philippe acknowledged Wednesday in France’s lower house of parliament that “in the last 10 years, the purchasing power has decreased. That’s a fact, that’s indisputable.”
The prime minister said his government’s economic policies aim to “making work pay, ensuring that growth returns.”
The government has so far maintained the fuel tax hikes, which are meant to help reduce France’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Nicolas Garriga in Paris and Lorne Cooke in Brussels contributed.