Paris the prize as French tax revolt rumbles on

Paris (AFP) –


Frank Buhler, a leader of the protesters who have barricaded French highways over the past week, aims to colour Paris in the movement's trademark yellow on Saturday when rural France takes its fight with President Emmanuel Macron to the capital.

The 53-year-old political activist has called on demonstrators to swarm Paris "on foot, horseback or by car" for the second round Saturday of a battle between centrist President Emmanuel Macron and rebels from the provinces.

A member of the right-wing "Stand Up France" party Buhler has watched in horror as fuel prices soared in the past year, driving up the cost of his commute to work in the rural southwestern Tarn-et-Garonne region.

"I spend between one and two months' wages on fuel," he told AFP in an interview, accusing Macron, who has hiked anti-pollution taxes, of penalising those who get up and go to work in the morning.

Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of people wearing yellow high-visibility vests erected roadblocks across the country in a wave of anti-government defiance.

Two people have been accidentally killed and over 530 people been injured in six days of protests that have shone a light on frustration over stagnant spending power in Europe's second-biggest economy.

Macron was elected on a pledge to put more money in workers' pockets but the effects of his reforms on purchasing power have been limited so far.

The Rexecode institute predicts household purchasing power will rise only by 1.3 percent this year, failing to compensate for an overall decline in disposable income of 440 euros between 2008 and 2016.

"The problem is that before the (global financial) crisis living standards were rising steadily. But that stopped in 2008 and the average household has still not recovered," Mathieu Plane of the French Economic Observatory told AFP.

- No post-2008 recovery -

A 23-percent rise in the price of diesel in the past year was the last straw for many struggling families.

The government has linked the price surge to world oil prices but the "yellow vests" accuse Macron of punishing motorists while slashing taxes on business and the wealthy.

This is not the first time the French -- who pay more in taxes and social security contributions than any other EU country -- have rebelled against levies they see as unjust.

For political analyst Jean-Yves Camus, "the acceptance of taxes is based on the notion of redistribution.

"It declines when public services recede, the safety nets dwindle and the gap between rich and poor increases," he said.

Macron has vowed not to back down on taxing polluters.

But with his ratings languishing at record lows six months ahead of European Parliament elections, the former banker, labelled the "president of the rich" by his opponents, has sought to present a more empathetic side.

In a TV interview last week he admitted that he had "not succeeded in reconciling the French with their leaders" and vowed to give the provinces more of a say in policy-making.

"There are legitimate grievances that have to be given a hearing," he told his cabinet Wednesday.

- 'Societal malaise' -

The "yellow vests" have drawn comparisons with the fiery Breton "red hats" who forced the Socialist government of Francois Hollande to scrap a pollution tax on trucks after weeks of protests in 2013 by food producers.

Unlike the "red hats", however, the "yellow vests" have national reach and represent a wide variety of grievances, from the cost of diesel to rising taxes on pensions to rural unemployment.

For historian Jean Garrigues, a professor at Sciences Po university in Paris, the protests hark back to the peasant tax revolt of 1358.

Like the 12th century "Jacquerie" -- named after the nickname given to the protesters by the nobility -- the revolt is "the expression of a societal malaise, which makes it very difficult to resolve," he told AFP.

Some observers see in it the seeds of a populist movement like Italy's Five Star Movement (M5S), which was born out of frustration with the political establishment and corruption and now shares power with the far-right League party.

But unlike the M5S, which was founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, no charismatic figure has so far emerged to lead the "yellow vests", despite attempts by the right, far right and radical left to channel their frustrations.