'Yellow vest' movement unleashes wave of anger against fuel tax in France
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France is bracing for heavy traffic over the weekend as angry drivers plan to block roads nationwide on November 17 in protest against rising fuel prices.
The French government approved a measure in late 2017 increasing a direct tax on diesel – which emits high amounts of pollutants – as well as a tax on carbon, in an effort to fight against climate change.
At the time, crude oil prices had dropped to just below $50 (€44) per barrel. Since then, however, the cost has surged to $85 (€75) per barrel. Drivers across the country have balked at the rising price of diesel, by far the most commonly used fuel in France, arguing that it disproportionately affects workers who depend on their vehicles to get to and from their jobs.
Dozens of petitions have appeared online urging French President Emmanuel Macron to repeal the tax hike, including one launched over the summer that has garnered 810,000 signatures and counting. A video posted by an angry driver in October lambasting Macron’s administration has also resonated with many for its plainspoken language, drawing more than 5 million views.
“I have two words for Macron and his government: You have persecuted drivers since taking office. When will it end?” the driver, Jacline Mouraud, says directly into the camera.
The groundswell of frustration has led to the so-called “yellow vest” movement (in reference to the neon yellow safety vests often worn by road workers and traffic police), which has called on drivers to block roads nationwide on Saturday in protest against the tax increase on diesel fuel.
More than 300 demonstrations have been planned in mainland France, as well as Corsica and the French island of Réunion, in the Indian Ocean.
Macron stands firm
Yet Macron has refused to back down, dismissing the "yellow vest" movement as he toured northeastern France for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
“I prefer taxing fuel to taxing labour. People complaining about rising fuel prices are the same ones who complain about pollution and how their children suffer,” he told regional newspapers in an interview published on November 5.
Macron’s political opponents immediately seized on his comments as further evidence that he has become a “president of the rich” who is unable to relate with the country’s working class.
“You have to be completely out of touch with reality not to understand that taxing fuel is taxing those French who work,” Laurent Wauquiez, leader of the conservative Les Républicains party (formerly the UMP) said on Twitter.
Perhaps seeking to strike a more conciliatory tone, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said he empathised with the public’s frustration in an interview with France’s RMC radio, also on November 5.
“We’re all drivers. A full tank for my car used to cost €68-70, now it’s nearly €80. When I drive my family, I see how expensive it is,” he said.
Le Maire went on to promote the government’s other efforts to create financial incentives for drivers to transition away form diesel, including a rebate for owners who trade in their vehicle for a more environmentally friendly model, new or used.
“We are offering the French public the possibility to exchange their cars for inexpensive, used vehicles,” he said.
In addition to the rebate, the government also offers a subsidy, or so-called “ecological bonus”, to drivers who rent or buy a new electric vehicle.
The measures are part of a broader push to reduce the country’s carbon emissions in the fight against climate change.
A landmark report published by a United Nations scientific panel in October concluded that putting a price on carbon emissions – whether in the form of a direct tax on fossil fuels, such as diesel, or through cap-and-trade programmes – is essential for curbing global warming.