The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France suspends fuel tax after weeks of unrest

A car that was vandalized by students sits upside down on a street near a technical school in Nantes, France, on Tuesday. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

PARIS — French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced Tuesday that the French government will temporarily suspend a carbon tax plan that triggered weeks of often violent protests nationwide.

To help curb climate change, the government had proposed the taxes, which were slated to take effect in January and were designed to wean consumers off diesel and other polluting fuels and to favor electric cars. But the price increases those taxes represented led to social unrest unseen in recent years that quickly became a full-blown crisis, and President Emmanuel Macron became the latest world leader to suffer at home for trying to impose green taxes.

“No tax is worth putting in danger the unity of the nation,” Philippe said as he announced the suspension.

The French government’s announcement came as delegates from around the world gathered in Katowice, Poland, for a climate conference designed to advance guidelines for how to meet the demands of the 2015 Paris agreement.

“Yellow vest” protesters appeared to throw stones at police bearing shields near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in video captured via body cam on Dec. 1. (Video: Police Nationale via CRSI via Storyful)

Macron has ranked among the most passionate advocates of curbing climate change by any and all available means, and his government’s reversal is likely to cast a pall over this week’s conference.

Even before the French decision, delegates were grappling with a world that has fallen far short of the commitments made in Paris, with no clear road map to targets.

“As we all know, we are not on track,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres told delegates at the climate conference Tuesday. He called on countries to “raise their ambition” in reducing emissions and promoting alternatives to fossil fuels.

But as France’s experience in recent days shows, there are myriad obstacles when the benefits of staving off climate change are felt long term, while the costs hit home now.

In tweets Tuesday night, President Trump cast the move as vindication for his own decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, arguing that taxpayers in countries such as the United States “shouldn’t pay to clean up others countries’ pollution.”

“I am glad that my friend @EmmanuelMacron and the protestors in Paris have agreed with the conclusion I reached two years ago,” Trump said. “The Paris Agreement is fatally flawed because it raises the price of energy for responsible countries while whitewashing some of the worst polluters in the world.”

For the better part of three weeks, protesters — clad in high-visibility yellow vests — took to the streets across France. In Paris, the scenes were particularly violent, with demonstrators defacing monuments, torching cars and smashing shop windows. The government went so far as to consider imposing a state of emergency to quell the unrest.

‘Yellow vest’ protests damage Paris monuments, shops and Macron’s presidency

Tuesday’s announcement — a six-month suspension of the proposed taxes — was a major reversal for a government that had initially stood its ground. Macron, who was elected in a landslide in 2017, has struggled to maintain his popularity, with critics accusing him of being out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people.

The protests have taken their toll: More than 70 percent of French voters support the yellow vests, and according to the latest poll, conducted by the Ifop polling agency, Macron’s approval rating has fallen to 23 percent in recent weeks — down from 26 percent last month.

“Before these protests, [Macron] was already very unpopular,” Ifop director Jérôme Fourquet said in an interview. “And this crisis has tarnished his image even further.”

Macron has always sought to differentiate himself from his predecessors, Fourquet said, noting his willingness to undertake difficult reforms. He ran into resistance from a railway strike earlier this year and ultimately prevailed, but the yellow-vest protests are different, the polling director said

“We’re standing in front of the first failure,” Fourquet said. “This is the first withdrawal, and it has risks for the future.”

In announcing the carbon tax suspension, Philippe sought to ease tensions. He emphasized that the French government was indeed well aware of the financial difficulties that many working-class and middle-class protesters had pointed out for weeks, which went far beyond carbon taxes.

His conciliatory, understanding tone stood in marked contrast to earlier statements from the government, including a television appearance by a deputy from Macron’s party who was unable to name the national minimum wage when pressed by two representatives of the yellow-vest movement.

“The French who donned the yellow vests love their country,” Philippe said. “They want taxes to go down and work to pay. If I have not succeeded in saying it, we have to change something.”

Despite the violent spectacles in Paris over the weekend, the prime minister said the yellow-vest protesters have a right to be angry. “This anger is widespread and has been simmering for a long time, and it’s often remained silent out of modesty or pride,” he said. “But it was expressed today. You would have to be deaf or blind not to see or hear it.”

Macron, a former investment banker, has long been derided by left-wing critics as “the president of the rich,” largely because of liberalizing market reforms he has pursued since taking office in May 2017.

Although smaller protests and railway strikes have accompanied the introduction of those earlier reforms, Macron — whose political party holds an absolute majority in the French Parliament — has always gotten his way with little resistance.

The proposed fuel taxes, however, were different, representing in the eyes of many an urban ignorance of the reality of life in rural areas relatively unserved by train lines or other forms of public transportation. France has more diesel cars than any other country in Europe.

Tuesday’s announcement is unlikely to calm the waters for long. A key priority for Macron’s administration has been to honor France’s European commitment to keep its budget deficit below 3 percent of gross domestic product. Suspending the carbon tax will mean that billions of euros will have to be saved elsewhere, possibly in the form of spending cuts that could affect the social services that many yellow-vest protesters also cherish.

Between Jan. 15 and March 1, France will have “a broad debate on taxes and public spending” to find “concrete solutions,” Philippe said. “We need to debate a fair level of public service in the territories,” he added, noting that the debate will be held at a national level throughout the provinces and not just among government officials behind closed doors.

But Macron’s political opponents rejected the suggestion that social services might be cut in any way.

“The government wants to lock the debate into a false alternative: ecology or purchasing power, public services or taxes,” Olivier Faure, leader of the Socialist Party, said in a statement posted on Twitter. “What we are asking for is fiscal justice, the fight against social and territorial inequalities, a wage discussion.”

In Paris, much of the discussion Tuesday centered on what many commentators described as a need to “reestablish the social contract” between the French state and its citizens. Macron's government came under further fire for its perceived elitism in the face of widespread suffering in the parts of France far from the stately avenues and tree-lined boulevards of the capital. As Bernard Cazeneuve, France's previous prime minister, told Le Monde: “The sentiment of disdain can only engender disdain.”

Political analysts, however, noted the irony of these critiques. The central message of Macron's campaign, they said, was the need to restore the social contract and to foster national unity.

“He believed that his election validated his program, and that all France — except the electorate of [right-wing politician] Marine Le Pen — agreed with him,” said Bruno Cautrès, a researcher at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. “It was grave mistake.”

For the moment, the protests show little sign of abating, even with the government’s reversal. Some demonstrators among the yellow vests — a movement that straddles the political aisle, has multiple spokesmen and no clear platform — are likely to continue their campaign against the government, announcing on social media plans for further protests.

Christophe Castaner, France's interior minister, declared Tuesday that “supplementary forces” will be mobilized on Saturday, anticipating another wave of violent demonstrations.

Griff Witte in Berlin contributed to this report.

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