Macron Blinks in Fuel-Tax Dispute With Yellow Vests

   < < Go Back
from The Wall Street Journal,

Grass-roots movement ‘gilets jaunes’ led violent protests in the heart of Paris, pressuring him to back down on key piece of his economic overhaul

French President Emmanuel Macron suffered the first major setback in his push to overhaul the French economy, backing off a fuel-tax increase that enraged much of the nation and sparked a grass-roots protest movement against his government.

Faced with another weekend of destructive protests by the gilets jaunes—or yellow vests—Prime Minister Édouard Philippe told a press conference on Tuesday that the tax increase would be pushed back six months to allow for public discussion. The worst riots to hit Paris in decades erupted during antigovernment protests on Saturday, leaving the city’s shopping and tourist center dotted with burning cars and damaged storefronts. Protesters vandalized the Arc de Triomphe, rattling Mr. Macron’s administration and the country.

“No tax is worth threatening the unity of the nation,” Mr. Philippe said.

The protests have become a test of Mr. Macron’s resolve to forge ahead with his broader agenda, particularly his plans to make France more business-friendly. The concession marked the first time the Macron government has blinked since the former investment banker took office in the spring of 2017.

In recent months, however, Mr. Macron’s approval ratings have plummeted and lawmakers in his own party have urged him to offer concessions as the gilets jaunes protests have mounted. Polls show that more than 70% of the public supports the demonstrators.

The protests have exposed the weakness hidden behind Mr. Macron’s large victory over far-right opponent Marine Le Pen. He assembled a winning coalition of centrist voters, but just 42% of registered voters backed Mr. Macron as unprecedented numbers of French left their ballots blank or abstained. Many gilets jaunes come from this segment of the French electorate, deeply skeptical of his centrist, business-friendly policies.

While the fuel-tax proposal spawned the gilets jaunes, the movement has since embraced a broader antigovernment agenda, accusing Mr. Macron of being a champion of the rich at the expense of the working class.

The tax proposal, aimed at simultaneously raising revenue and cutting automobile pollution, was a hallmark of Mr. Macron’s technocratic leadership style. Economists say such consumption taxes that reduce pollution and other harmful effects are an efficient way for the government to raise revenue.

That approach, however, alienated swaths of French people who live in rural and suburban areas and rely on their cars to reach their jobs in city centers. It also compounded the public’s perception that rural France has borne the brunt of globalization’s impact, as forces such as e-commerce and big-box retail have left villages and towns hollowed out.

The result: Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Paris and other cities around France, blocking roads, clashing with police and demanding Mr. Macron’s resignation.

More From The Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

Macron Blinks in Fuel-Tax Dispute With Yellow Vests