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PARIS: France’s prime minister on Tuesday suspended planned increases to fuel taxes for at least six months in response to weeks of sometimes violent protests, the first major U-turn by President Emmanuel Macron’s administration after 18 months in office.

In announcing the decision, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said anyone would have “to be deaf or blind” not to see or hear the roiling anger on the stre­e­ts over a policy that Macron has defe­n­ded as critical to combating climate change.

“The French who have donned yellow vests want taxes to drop, and work to pay. That’s also what we want. If I didn’t manage to explain it, if the ruling majority didn’t manage to convince the French, then something must change,” said Philippe. “No tax is worth jeopardising the unity of the nation.”

Along with the delay to the tax increases that were set for January, Philippe said the time would be used to discuss other measures to help the working poor and squeezed middle-class who rely on vehicles to get to work and go shopping.

Earlier officials had hinted at a possible increase to the minimum wage, but Philippe made no such commitment. He warned citizens, however, that they could not expect better public services and lower taxes.

“If the events of recent days have shown us one thing, it’s that the French want neither an increase in taxes or new taxes. If the tax-take falls then spending must fall, because we don’t want to pass our debts on to our children. And those debts are already sizeable,” he said.

The so-called “yellow vest” movement, which started on Nov 17 as a social-media protest group named for the high-visibility jackets all motorists in France carry in their cars, began with the aim of highlighting the squeeze on household spending brought about by Macron’s taxes on fuel.

However, over the past three weeks the movement has evolved into a wider, broadbrush anti-Macron uprising, with many criticising the president for pursuing policies they say favour the rich and do nothing to help the poor.

After three weeks of rising frustration, there was scant indication Philippe’s measures would placate the “yellow vests”, who themselves are struggling to find a unified position.

While the “yellow vest” movement was mostly peaceful to begin with, the past two weekends have seen outpourings of violence and rioting in Paris, with extreme far-right and far-left factions joining the demos and spurring chaos.

The unrest is estimated to have cost the economy millions, with large-scale disruption to retailers, wholesalers, the restaurant and hotel trades. In some areas, manufacturing has been hit in the run up to Christmas.

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2018

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