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People stand in a bridge as they block the Caen's circular road after a nationwide day of protest called "yellow vest" movement against high fuel prices has mushroomed into a widespread protest against stagnant spending power under French President. Image Credit: AFP

Paris: The French president is under fire again, this time over rising fuel prices.

On Saturday, some 282,700 protesters, many clad in yellow vests, not only took to the streets, but in many places literally took the streets, according to the French Interior Ministry. The ministry said a network of drivers blocked roads at some 2,000 locations across the country, generating traffic backups for miles and causing one death.

A 63-year-old protester was killed in the eastern Savoie region when a driver panicked by demonstrators accidentally accelerated into the crowd. In other incidents nationwide, 227 people were reported injured. Eight of the injured were in serious condition, ministry officials said. A police officer and a firefighter who intervened when protesters attacked a closed service station were among the eight.

Why are people on the warpath?

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Protesters face riot police as they block the A10 motorway in Virsac, near Bordeaux, southwestern France Image Credit: AFP

The protesters’ chief complaint: the rising cost of diesel fuel. The recent price hike is a direct result of Emmanuel Macron’s commitment to curbing climate change, which included higher carbon taxes for 2018, the first full year of his term. But beyond the diesel issue, many turned out Saturday to voice any number of other frustrations with the so-called “president for the rich,” who is seen as increasingly removed from ordinary people’s concerns.

The daughter of the woman killed called for calm as she protested in Cavaillon, in southern France. “I really want people not to let themselves become submerged by anger,” Alexandrine Mazet told RTL radio. “The yellow jackets must understand this is a peaceful movement,” she said. The young woman appeared later on BFMTV still wearing her yellow vest.

How is climate change linked to this?

Diesel, a fossil fuel, is known for the pollutants it emits into the air. Although it was traditionally taxed at the same rate as petrol, that is no longer the case: Taxes on diesel have risen by 6.2 per cent per litre this year, as part of the government’s efforts to protect clean air. The problem is that diesel remains the most common fuel in France, leading many to view recent policies as an attack on working people more than an environmental safeguard.

However, the United Nations contends that taxing carbon dioxide emissions is an essential component of halting a steady rise in global temperatures. It was a key element of the world body’s major October report predicting that the earth’s atmosphere may warm by up to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit over preindustrial levels as soon as 2040, potentially triggering a global crisis decades earlier than expected. Approximately 48,000 people die in France every year from pollution-related causes, according to France’s public health watchdog.

Why is raising carbon tax a priority for France?

Carbon taxes have been a priority for Macron since the beginning, with France raising its carbon tax from $35 a tonne in 2017 to $51 a tonne in 2018. The cost is slated to keep rising, eventually reaching $98.50 a tonne in 2022. In recent weeks, the government has acknowledged the impact on the average French pocketbook. But since early 2018, consumers have been eligible for an “environmental bonus” rebate: Trade in a diesel car for a more environmentally friendly model, and get money back.

Macron wants to close the gap between the price of diesel fuel and gasoline as part of his strategy to wean France off fossil fuels. A “carbon trajectory” calls for continued increases. The price of diesel, the most commonly used fuel in French cars, has risen by around 23 per cent over the past 12 months to an average of €1.51 (£1.32; $1.71) per litre, its highest point since the early 2000s. World oil prices did rise before falling back again but the Macron government raised its hydrocarbon tax this year by 7.6 cents per litre on diesel and 3.9 cents on petrol, as part of a campaign for cleaner cars and fuel.

So why is the tax a sensitive issue in France?

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Protesters shout anti government slogan on the place de la Concorde to protest fuel taxes in Paris, France. Image Credit: AP

The planned increase in fuel taxes, notably for diesel fuel, spoke to those French who feel the president has asked ordinary citizens to make the largest efforts in his bid to transform France. Those French who have a hard time making ends meet often rely on cheaper diesel fuel. Many drivers see this as emblematic of a presidency they view as disconnected from day-to-day economic difficulties and serving the rich. Macron’s popularity has plunged, hovering around 30 per cent. More than 1,000 protesters congregated at the Place de la Concorde at the bottom of the Champs-Elysees, shouting “Macron resign” as police looked on.

How have the protests played out?

Police officers lobbed tear gas canisters at demonstrators on the famed Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris as groups of “yellow jackets,” as the protesters called themselves, tried to make their way to the presidential Elysee Palace. Later, hundreds of protesters entered the bottom of the street dotted with luxury shops where the palace is located — and where Macron lives — before being pushed back by security forces with shields. In a similar scenario, police cleared out the huge traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe, paralysed for hours by protesters.

Do a majority of people believe in the protests?

According to a poll published Friday by the Odoxa agency for France’s Le Figaro newspaper — albeit with only 1,000 respondents — as many as three in four French people agree. Whatever the actual figure, Macron’s political opponents, particularly on France’s political extremes, have sought to capitalise on the sentiment, using the “yellow vest” movement to cast the president as an out-of-touch elitist.

That is a common criticism of Macron, whose approval ratings have recently plummeted to as low as 26 per cent. Even President Donald Trump took notice, noting Macron’s low popularity in a flurry of tweets after a tense visit to Paris last weekend.

Laurent Wauquiez, the leader of France’s right-wing Les Republicains, announced he would be demonstrating. “We’re offered a punitive environmental policy that involves massive increases in taxes,” Wauquiez said in a recent interview. “I’m tired of the fact that in this country environmental policy always comes by way of taxes.”

How has Macron responded?

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French President Emmanuel Macron(R) and US President Donald Trump(L) during their meeting inside the Elysee Palace in Paris. Image Credit: AP

In response, Macron has offered his “respect and consideration” to the protesters but has refused to budge. He is also far from alone in advocating higher carbon taxes. Since his election, Macron has sought to position himself as a leading voice for action on climate change — in notable contrast to Trump. When the latter withdrew the US from the landmark Paris climate accord of 2015, Macron invited US climate scientists to continue their research in France. In English, he even played on Trump’s campaign slogan: “Make Our Planet Great Again.”

What is the incentive for those paying high carbon tax?

The French economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, has spent recent days promoting the government’s financial incentives for drivers to move away from diesel. These include a rebate for owners who trade in vehicles for a more environmentally friendly model. There is also an “ecological bonus” for drivers who rent or buy new electric vehicles. Protesters struggling to meet the rising cost of fuel say this does not help them in the short term.

But has France done enough to contain the damage?

Despite those public interventions, however, the French president has come under fire at home for not making much progress on the climate question. The criticism has come even from within his own cabinet: Nicolas Hulot, a former television personality who served as Macron’s staggeringly popular environment minister, resigned during an August radio interview that took the Elysee Palace by surprise.

As Hulot said during the interview: “Have we begun to reduce the use of pesticides? The answer is no. Have we started to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? The answer is no. Or to stop the erosion of biodiversity? No.” Although the government is sticking to its policies, Macron, in a rare concession, appears to recognise the blow to his image that Saturday’s demonstrations represent. As he said in a recent interview: “I have not succeeded in reconciling the French people with their leaders.”you

Who are the ‘Gilet jaunes’ protesters bringing France to a standstill?

The so-called gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protest movement has no official organisation, no identified leader and no political affiliation. Instead, it has been almost entirely coordinated on social media.

As a result, the French authorities fear the location of the protests is almost impossible to pin down and nobody has a clue how many people will turn up. On Friday, the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, said the gilets jaunes were free to protest but blocking the country was “obviously not acceptable”.

The nationwide protest was unusual because it arose from within the citizenry, backed neither by unions nor politicians, although some took part in a clear bid for supporters. It was unclear whether the upstart movement, without a leader, would survive, and what problems it might pose for Macron.

The grass roots nature of the protests, which drew supporters angry over an array of issues, made it a political hot potato for Macron’s government. Security officials treaded lightly, ordering police to use dialogue rather than force but to stop protesters from completely blocking major routes or endangering lives or property.

“They have sent a message,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said. “It is heard. The government is attentive to all demonstrations and, of course, we must continue to answer the expectations of the French including those about their purchasing power.”

The call to action across France in protest at the rising cost of diesel and petrol, has sparked vigorous support on Facebook, where the Blocage 17 November 2018 page, has almost 25,000 followers. The group states: “We point out that we are not part of any organisation (or political party). This event comes about only from the French people.”

The stirrings of the “yellow vest” campaign began this summer, with online petitions urging Macron to reconsider. But the loudest voice was that of Jacline Mouraud, a white-haired hypnotist and grandmother of three from Brittany who has become the star of the movement. “I have two little words for Mr. Macron and his government,” she said, in a YouTube video that has garnered millions of views. “You have persecuted drivers since the day you took office. This will continue for how long?” On Saturday, Mouraud was asked to explain the death of the protester earlier in the day. “I deplore the death of this woman,” she said, speaking to Europe 1 radio. “But who is responsible for this situation? The French government is responsible for the death of this woman.”

While go-slow actions will be tolerated during the demonstration, police have been ordered to break up any protests that bring roads to a standstill. A poll by Elabe for BFM TV on Wednesday suggested 73 per cent of French people supported the protests and 70 per cent said the government should scrap the fuel price rises.