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As French govt holds firm on diesel tax, where do 'Yellow Vest' protests stand?

Benoit Tessier, REUTERS | A ‘Yellow Vest’ protester on the Champs- Élysées in Paris on November 24, 2018.

“Yellow Vest” protesters have called for renewed demonstrations in Paris on Saturday, as the French government holds firm on plans to increase a direct tax on diesel fuel in the coming year.

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The protests – which began in response to the government’s decision in late 2017 to introduce annual increases to diesel and carbon taxes – has since coalesced into a broader movement against French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration and the high cost of living.

For the past 11 days, Yellow Vest protesters have blocked roads and roundabouts nationwide, demanding everything from rescinding the diesel tax to Macron’s resignation. Here’s a look at where things now stand.

What is the government’s position?

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe refused on Wednesday to give into mounting pressure to abandon the tax hike, which is due to come into effect on January 1, 2019.

“We have set a course and we will stay the course,” he told French RMC radio and BFM television. “A tax increase was planned to take effect January 1st of every year. We are maintaining this objective, but this year we will examine the cost of the raw material each trimester.”

Philippe did, however, offer to meet with representatives of the movement to discuss their grievances.

“If there is a delegation of ‘Yellow Vest’ representatives who wish to meet, I will do it,” he said. “I will willingly listen and talk while trying to take into account what they are saying, because a lot of what they are saying is legitimate and should be heard.”

The prime minister’s comments came a day after Macron announced a string of measures intended to assuage protesters’ anger over the rising fuel prices, including a system to adjust taxes depending on the cost of crude oil, and a “national consultation on ecological and social transition”.

“What I want to make French people understand – notably those who say ‘we hear the president, the government, they talk about the end of the world and we are talking about the end of the month’ – is that we are going to treat both, that we must treat both,” Macron said.

Where does that leave ‘Yellow Vest’ protesters?

Angry, that’s where. Macron’s concessions failed to impress the movement’s leaders, who swiftly called for fresh protests on the famous Champs-Élysées Avenue in Paris on Saturday.

“People feel like their opinion doesn’t count, that’s the message that’s being sent,” said Priscilla Ludosky, one of two Yellow Vest representatives who met with Ecology Minister François de Rugy on Tuesday.

Last weekend, the Champs-Élysées was the scene of violent clashes between protesters and police, who used teargas and a water-cannon to disperse crowds. The interior ministry estimated 106,000 people took part in demonstrations across the country, with 8,000 in Paris alone.

The number paled, however, in comparison with nationwide protests the week before, which drew a total of 282,000.

Is there public support for the protests?

Overwhelming support. According to a poll published by OpinionWay on Wednesday, 66 percent of respondents said they backed the Yellow Vest protests, while 78 percent said Macron’s proposals to help defray the rising cost of fuel were “insufficient”.

A survey published last week by opinion research firm Ifop reached similar results, with 66 percent of those questioned stating they had a “favourable view” of the movement.

The movement has also taken hold in France’s overseas territories. Life on the tiny Indian Ocean island of Réunion has been nearly paralysed by the protests, which have forced some schools and businesses to close.

Overseas Territories Minister Annick Girardin arrived in Réunion on Wednesday, where she met for over an hour with Yellow Vest protesters angry over the high cost of living and widespread unemployment, which has reached 24 percent on the island.

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