French Rise Up Against Fuel Tax Hikes

(CN) – Call it France’s Tea Party moment.

Protesters block the traffic on the Champs Elysees avenue to protest fuel taxes in Paris. France is bracing for a nationwide traffic mess as drivers plan to block roads to protest rising fuel taxes, in a new challenge to embattled President Emmanuel Macron. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

On Monday, anti-tax protesters continued to block roads and disrupt traffic in France after a chaotic and violent weekend of demonstrations against government fuel taxes meant to force pollution-causing vehicles off the roads and make France less dependent on oil.

One protester was killed and over 400 people were injured, more than a dozen seriously, according to news reports. Protesters have promised to keep pressure on the government in a fight that could escalate further.

Since the start of this year, a tax on diesel has increased by 7.60 cents per liter and a tax on gasoline by 3.90 cents a liter, according to Euronews. A liter of diesel or unleaded gasoline in France now costs about $1.70 a liter, or about $6.30 a gallon.

By Monday, protest leaders were calling on people to descend on Paris next Saturday for another round of disruption.

The anti-tax outrage and protests were born from an online petition and social media platforms. The movement has called itself apolitical, but opposition political parties on the left and right have jumped aboard, turning the protest into a political contest too.

In one Facebook post, protest leader Eric Drouet called next Saturday’s protests “Act 2.” He urged supporters to make it to Paris by any means possible – by truck, train, bus, electric bicycle or carpool.

The main target of loathing is French President Emmanuel Macron. Protesters were seen wearing images of Macron with the word “diktatur.”

The widespread protests are the latest blow to Macron, whose popularity has plummeted in the past year following economic reforms, a scandal involving a presidential security aide and a perception that the president is aloof, arrogant and favoring the wealthy class.

Macron’s government says the higher fuel taxes are a key part of plans to wean France off fossil fuels and move the country toward cleaner transportation. France is also looking at allowing cities to start charging drivers entry fees. Protesters also railed against such proposals.

(AP Photo/Claude Paris)

About 346,000 people took part in the protests over the weekend, according to government estimates. The protests included clashes with police and motorists. One motorist allegedly hit and killed a protester when she tried to break through a blockade. She was reportedly trying to get her daughter to a doctor.

Police used tear gas near the city of Caen to break up protesters accused of vandalism and setting fires.

The protesters have been characterized as middle-class French citizens, many of whom live outside urban centers and face financial struggles and shrinking purchasing power.

The protests have become politically significant. The protesters’ cause was quickly adopted by far-right political parties, including Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and Debout La France. Over the weekend, far-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon also joined in the protests.

Laurent Wauquiez, the head of the center-right Republicans, also showed his support.

“I really hope the president of the republic will understand what’s happening and that he will correct his mistakes,” he said, showing up at a protest. “These taxes can’t continue.”

But the protests also have been criticized as carrying homophobic and xenophobic undertones. In at least one incident, people blocking a road were caught on video hurling racist insults at a female black driver. In another incident, La Voix de L’Aina newspaper said a town councilor alleged he and another man were pulled from a car when he overheard a protester say, “I recognize him. He’s gay.” The councilor said they were kicked and punched before police arrived.

The protesters have called themselves the “yellow vests” because they wear highly visible yellow vests that people in European countries are required to wear when they are attending to broken down vehicles.

The French government has shown no sign of backtracking. On Sunday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government would stay the course, though he acknowledged the hardships of the protesters. More tax increases on fuel are planned.

Macron’s government says it is paramount that France use less diesel. On Sunday, Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin said it was the government’s duty to make the nation less dependent on oil, the Agence France-Presse reported.

Jerome Saint-Marie, a political scientist and pollster, told Le Figaro newspaper that the protests have proven to be very effective. He said the protesters were mostly retirees and employed and self-employed people who earn around the median monthly income.

“There was a close correlation between modest household income and sympathy for the ‘yellow vests,’” he said.

Saint-Marie said the protesters are people whose lives are marked by “permanent financial insecurity.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

%d bloggers like this: