‘Yellow vests’ accuse president of being out of touch with ordinary people
Harriet Agnew in Paris YESTERDAY
The protesters came from all across the French political spectrum but were united by a common complaint: that President Emmanuel Macron was out of touch with the lives of ordinary people and had impoverished them since coming to power 18 months ago.
On Saturday, 8,000 people took to the streets in Paris as part of the so-called Gilets Jaunes (yellow-vest) movement, a grassroots initiative that has no official leaders, no political affiliation and relies on social media to mobilise its cohorts.
Across France, 106,000 protesters wearing gilets jaunes were recorded by the interior ministry, the culmination of a week of countrywide action that claimed two lives and left hundreds injured.
While that figure was fewer than half the 283,000 who turned out on the previous Saturday, the tone of defiance remained. This Saturday 130 people were arrested and placed in police custody, including 42 in Paris, the ministry added.
The official protest site in Paris was the Champ de Mars by the Eiffel Tower, but hundreds of people lined the Champs Elysées and one of the most celebrated avenues in the world quickly descended into chaos. Store windows were smashed and bonfires set alight amid chants of “Macron, démission” (“Macron, resignation”).
Protesters threw stones at the police and materials on building sites were used to build barricades. Police deployed a water cannon, pepper spray and tear gas to prevent people from marching to the presidential palace.
Mr Macron condemned the violent nature of some of the protests. In a tweet on Saturday, he said: “Thank you to our law enforcement for their courage and professionalism. Shame on those who attacked them. Shame on those who have abused other citizens and journalists. Shame on those who have tried to intimidate elected officials. No room for this violence in the Republic.”
Bruno Le Maire, finance minister, said on Sunday that he would meet business leaders on Monday to “take stock of the impact of the gilets jaunes movement on the economic activity of the country”.
What started as an online petition against the government’s decision to increase fuel taxes to spur drivers to greener vehicles has morphed into a wide-ranging display of discontentment. It cuts across age, employment status and political affiliation, and centres on deepening inequality in a country where unemployment hovers at more than 9 per cent.
Aurelien Mercuri travelled from Decazeville in southern France to join the protests in Paris, where he walked up the Champs Elysées brandishing a placard, saying: “France is the most taxed country in the world”.
He said: “There are too many increases: the CSG [social security charges] for the retirees, the gasoline increase. The president does not listen to the people. He takes money from small workers and retirees and distributes it to the rich.”
Most of the protests on the Champs Elysées were peaceful. “We cannot live any more, money is badly distributed,” said an unemployed woman waving a French flag. “They do not tax the international companies that move to France, or the rich with their big boats and private planes. Macron is too distant. He lives in a bubble with only rich people around him and doesn’t know how the ordinary French people live.”
Her friend added: “It’s worse in the provinces. People don’t have public transport, hospitals are closing, public services are closing, and the government has cut the speed limit from 90kph to 80kph on secondary roads. And there is no financial transparency,” he added. “We do not know how the government uses the money.”
Christiane, a 76-year-old woman from the 19th arrondissement in Paris, said: “People have trouble making it to the end of the month. The government takes money from the average French who works and has a small income, and does not touch the high earners. It’s really the France from the bottom of the working class who revolts today.” An ill-timed tweet by the mayor of Paris on Saturday invited people to ‘come to admire the iluminations of the Avenue des Champs-Elysées’
On the sidelines of a European Council meeting on Sunday, Mr Macron played down the idea of a rift between France’s urban and rural areas.
The latest round of protests came as the French government prepared this week to unveil a 10-year energy programme, including a road map for a shift away from nuclear energy towards renewables.
“It’s not up to us to pay for the ecological transition, the big companies ought to pay,” said Thomas, a carpenter. “We are fed up with tax.”
The opposition accused the government of trying to discredit the demonstrations by linking the violence to the far-right. At a press conference on Saturday, Christophe Castaner, minister of the interior, distinguished between the “good child” demonstrators and the “seditious” of the extreme right who “answered the call of Marine Le Pen”, the leader of the National Rally, formerly known as the National Front, to parade down the Champs Elysées.
Ms Le Pen retorted on La Chaîne Info that she had “never called for any violence whatsoever” and in turn accused the government of “organising the tension” and making her a “scapegoat”.
Meanwhile, in an ill-timed tweet on Saturday afternoon, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo invited Parisians to “come to admire the illuminations of the Avenue des Champs-Elysées”. The tweet, which had been scheduled in advance, was quickly taken down.