Macron faces most serious test as fuel protests threaten French gridlock
Published on: November 17, 2018 02:24 (EAT)
Emmanuel Macron is braced for one of the toughest tests of his 18-month presidency on Saturday with planned protests over rising fuel taxes set to bring France’s roads to a halt.
Opposition has mounted to France’s spiraling fuel costs, which has seen diesel prices surge 16% this year from an average €1.24 ($1.41) per liter to €1.48 ($1.69), and even hitting €1.53 in October, according to UFIP, France’s oil industry federation.
A grassroots movement — dubbed the “gilets jaunes” or “yellow vests” in reference to the hi-vis safety vests worn by drivers — has galvanized motorists up and down the country, who are now threatening to cause blockages on arterial road networks.
Agence France-Press reports that 700 blockages are planned for Saturday, while website www.blocage17 novembre.com states that protests are planned in all 95 of France’s mainland departments.
A petition on Change.org has also received more than 850,000 signatures, calling on the French government to lower the cost of fuel.
The price hike is in large caused by a leap in the wholesale price of oil, with Brent Crude oil — a benchmark for worldwide oil purchases — increasing by more than 20% in the first half of 2018 from around $60 a barrel to a peak of $86.07 in early October.
French protesters are however not directing their anger at Opec for reducing oil production, or at the US administration for implementing tariffs on Iran, crippling its oil exports.
Macron is instead bearing the brunt of widespread French chagrin, with many protesters furious at the current leader’s extension of hostile environmental policies implemented under François Hollande’s government.
Notably, taxes were increased by 8 centimes last January on diesel, and by 4 centimes on petrol. Tax on diesel will also increase by another 6.4 centimes in 2019, and by 2.9 centimes for petrol. These rises follow many decades of under-taxation of diesel in France.
The growing resentment has also been a springboard for partisan political attacks, with opponents of Macron’s centrist En Marche party energizing their bases to fuel further revolt.
“This government hasn’t understood the anger of the French,” Olivier Faure, head of the French Socialist Party, said Wednesday.
“Macron has not heard the French,” Laurent Wauquiez, leader of the center-right party Les Républicains, added in an interview for BFMTV and RMC radio.
While Macron’s former nemesis Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Rally, said: “We were the first party to express our total support for this movement.”
Interior Minister Christopher Castaner hit back at Macron’s opponents, branding the protests “political” and accusing Les Républicains of being behind them.
“It’s a political protest with the Republicans behind it, and it’s irrational because the rising taxes have been compensated by the decline in the oil market,” he said in an interview on French television channel BFM.
“We hear the protests, we hear the anger, I know the situation, but we have to explain that it’s essential that we exit fossil fuels.”
The minister also remained defiant in anticipation of widespread disruption on Saturday, vowing that police will be present to break up any dangerous roadblocks.
“I am asking for the roads to not be completely blocked,” Castaner said. “Where there is a roadblock — which means there’s a risk for emergency services — there will be police.”
President Macron struck a more conciliatory tone, stating that protesters have a “fundamental right” to express their anger.
“I hear the anger, and it’s a fundamental right in our society to be allowed to express it,” Macron said in an interview Wednesday.
He nevertheless admitted that he was “wary because many different people are trying to piggyback on this movement.”
Yet despite Macron’s attempts at appeasement, and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s announcement of close to €500 million in aid to low-income motorists in a key concession on Wednesday, motorists still look set to wreak havoc.
The landmark protests are not solely about the sharp rise in fuel prices; they are also being billed as a culmination in the long-running tensions between the metropolitan elite and rural poor.