France's 'yellow vest' protesters block access to fuel depots

Protesters angry over high fuel prices blocked access to fuel depots and stopped traffic on major roads Monday after the government refused to back down on fuel taxes following a weekend of demonstrations across France.

Gérard Julien, AFP | Trucks drive as Yellow Vests (Gilets jaunes) block the road during a demonstration against the rising of the fuel and oil prices on November 19, 2018, near the oil refinery of Fos-sur-mer, southern France.

Scattered road blockades have continued around France since mass protests of the tax increases left one protester dead and hundreds injured Saturday.

About 20,000 protesters took part in some 350 actions Monday around France, including on a highway leading to the tunnel used by Eurostar trains to Britain, according to interior ministry spokesman Frederic De Lanouvelle.

The protest movement represents drivers of various backgrounds, notably those who rely on their cars to get to work. They call themselves "yellow jackets" after the safety vests French drivers are obliged to keep in their cars for emergencies.

Protest representative Benjamin Cauchy said on RMC radio that drivers blocked about 10 oil depots Monday and were demanding a freeze on taxes that he says disproportionately hurt the working class.

French oil industry lobby UFIP said protesters blocked some of the country's 200 depots and slowed traffic at others, but couldn't give nationwide figures.

Local media also reported road blockades Monday at sites from Verdun in the northeast to Bordeaux in the southwest, but fewer than the more than 2,000 sites on Saturday.

Other protesters continued to camp out in supermarket parking lots.

“The movement is not exceptional... and obviously isn’t as big as on Saturday,” Laurent Nunez, junior interior minister, told CNews, adding that police would continue to intervene to ensure major roads are not blocked.

A handful of skirmishes were reported overnight, including in the northern port city of Calais where an Australian truck driver was detained after trying to force his way through a barricade.

A British motorist was also detained trying to break through a barricade in Calais.

Stagnant spending power

The grassroots movement emerged on social media last month over a surge in fuel prices this year, in particular for diesel, which many blame on taxes implemented in recent years as part of France’s anti-pollution fight.

It quickly snowballed into a broader protest over stagnant spending power under President Emmanuel Macron.

“I earn 500 euros ($570) a month how do you expect me to live on that? With what I earn I can only allow myself one meal a day,” said Jean-Luc, a 57-year-old protesting in Calais.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Sunday night that the government had heard the anger, but that it would maintain the fuel taxes, which are set to increase again in January.

Macron himself, whose popularity has been sinking, wouldn't comment when asked Monday about the protests.

Last week, the government unveiled a €500 million package of measures to help low-income households, including energy subsidies and higher scrappage bonuses for the purchase of cleaner vehicles.

But even some lawmakers in Macron’s Republic on the Move (LREM) party are urging the government to do more to help ease fuel and energy costs as winter approaches.

“We need to maintain environmental taxes, [French PM Philippe] is right to reiterate this, but we also need more measures to assist the French, especially the middle classes and the less well-off,” LREM lawmaker Matthieu Orphelin told RFI, FRANCE 24’s sister radio, on Monday.

Protesters have called for more national actions this coming Saturday. They also said they were raising money online for the family of the protester who was struck and killed by a panicked driver.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app