Macron seeks way out of crisis after Paris riots

AFP , Monday 3 Dec 2018

French leader Emmanuel Macron (Photo: AFP)

French leader Emmanuel Macron faced growing pressure Monday to find a way out of the worst crisis of his presidency after shocking scenes of rioting over taxes in Paris at the weekend.

As dozens of people were brought to court, over the worst clashes in central Paris in decades on Saturday, Macron's government was preparing its response.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who cancelled a scheduled trip to Poland, met the heads of the main opposition parties, many of whom sense opportunities in Macron's woes.

The president has vowed not to back down on the anti-pollution fuel taxes which sparked the protests in rural France, but on Monday the government indicated that it might make concessions.

Four people have died in incidents linked to the anti-government protests which began on November 17.

They include an 80-year-old woman in Marseille who was hit by fragments of a tear gas canister while closing her shutters during riots on Saturday and died later in hospital, local prosecutors said.

The protests have snowballed into a broad wave of resistance to Macron's economic reforms, accused of being tilted towards the rich.

"Mr President, we need a response," demanded the front-page headline of Le Parisien newspaper on Monday.

"The longer this goes on, the higher the political price," Bruno Cautres of the Cevipof political research institute told AFP.

Macron has not spoken publicly about the destruction in Paris since his return from a G20 summit in Argentina at the weekend.

On Monday, he had lunch with police from a Paris barracks that was involved in trying to quell the riots.

The 40-year-old centrist was elected in May 2017 on a pro-business platform that included measures to incite companies to invest to create jobs.

Immediately after coming to power, he pushed through tax cuts for entrepreneurs and high-earners -- measures that have become a lightning rod for anger among the "gilets jaunes" (yellow vests) who have blocked highways around the country in the past two weeks.

His task is complicated by his own desire not to yield to street protests, which in the past have repeatedly forced his predecessors into U-turns.

Jacline Mouraud, one of the instigators of the "yellow vests", told AFP that scrapping a fuel tax increase planned for January was a "prerequisite for any discussion" with the government.

But some protesters are holding out for more, including a rise in the minimum wage and pensions.

- Truckers count losses -

Business leaders on Monday warned that the unrest, which degenerated into arson and looting around the Champs-Elysees avenue and other tourist attractions on Saturday, could cause shoppers to flee during the busy end-of-year holiday period.

Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said Monday that hotel reservations had fallen by "around 15 to 20 percent" since the start of the protests.

Trucking federations said Monday that they had suffered operating losses of 400 million euros ($450 million) over the past two weeks due to delays in deliveries caused by the protesters' road blocks.

After meeting political rivals on Monday, the prime minister is to hold talks with representatives of the "yellow vests" on Tuesday.

Philippe will then announce "measures" aimed at taking the heat out of the protests, his office said.

Far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, who has been cheering on the protests, tweeted that she had asked Philippe during their meeting to "end the strategy of confrontation chosen by Emmanuel Macron for the past three weeks."

A state of emergency had been mooted after rioters ran amok in Paris, attacking the police, torching cars, vandalising shops and setting six buildings alight.

But on Monday deputy interior minister Laurent Nunez backed away from the draconian step, saying that while it remained an option it was "not on the table for now".

- Solution: lower taxes? -

Le Maire said the solution for tackling low purchasing power for struggling families lay in reducing the tax burden in France, which is among the highest in Europe.

"We must speed up the reduction of taxes," he said. "But for that we must speed up the decrease in public spending."

Macron was booed Sunday by onlookers while surveying the damage, including at the Arc de Triomphe, the monument to France's war dead at the top of the Champs-Elysees avenue, where demonstrators scrawled graffiti and ransacked the ticketing and reception areas.

Paris police said 412 people were arrested during the worst clashes for years in the capital and 363 remained in custody, according to the latest figures.

A total of 263 people were injured nationwide, including 133 in the capital, 23 of them members of the security forces.

One person was in a critical condition after protesters pulled down one of the huge iron gates of the Tuileries garden by the Louvre, crushing several people.

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