The French government signalled Wednesday that it was prepared to make further concessions to “yellow vest” protesters, even raising a possible rollback on a controversial move to cut taxes for high earners last year.
President Emmanuel Macron faces a crucial few days as he seeks an end to more than two weeks of protests which degenerated on Saturday into some of the worst violence in central Paris in decades.
The “yellow vest” protests began on November 17 in opposition to rising fuel taxes, but they have since ballooned into a broad challenge to the government’s pro-business agenda.
One of the frequent demands from the protesters, who are mostly from rural or small-town France, is a repeal of Macron’s move last year to cut the ISF “fortune tax” which was previously levied on high-earners.
“If something isn’t working, we’re not dumb, we’ll change it,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said on RTL radio on Wednesday, saying the wealth tax would be evaluated.
Macron, a former investment banker, was heckled late Tuesday as he visited a burned-out government building in central France, hours after a new opinion poll showed his approval rating at just 23 percent.
The 40-year-old made scrapping the “fortune tax” one of his key campaign pledges ahead of his election in May 2017, arguing that such levies on the wealthy discouraged job creation and drove entrepreneurs to leave the country.
Griveaux stressed that reinstating the ISF “is not on the table for now,” but Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa said she would argue to bring it back unless the tax cut could be shown to be effective.
“The government has been too technocratic and took too long to respond” to the protests, she told France 3 television Tuesday.
U-turn on taxes
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the first major retreat of Macron’s presidency when he suspended for six months a rise in fuel taxes scheduled for January 1.
He also froze increases in regulated electricity and gas prices and new vehicle norms which would have hit users of old, polluting diesel cars — a battery of announcements targeted at low-income families.
A source in the prime minister’s office told AFP that “the government has not necessarily played all of its cards”, with more concessions such as a further cut in residence taxes possible.
But experts say they believe the government has reacted too late to the street protests, a regular feature of French political life which have repeatedly forced Macron’s predecessors into U-turns.
“When you leave things to fester too long, it costs more,” sociologist Jean-Francois Amadieu from the Paris I university told media.
Raymond Soubie, another expert on French protest groups who worked under former rightwing president Nicolas Sarkozy, said that “the biggest question is whether public opinion continues to support the yellow vests.”
A poll on Tuesday found that 71 percent of French people were behind them, but the same proportion believed that the movement should stop if the government backed down on fuel tax hikes.