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  • "Clear off, lazy, cynical, radical" says the banner during a demonstration in Paris, France, April 19, 2018. | Photo: Reuters

Published 14 November 2018

A surge in the price of diesel has provoked an uproar in rural and small-town France, with citizens' groups threatening to block roads and highways on Saturday.

The French government on Wednesday attempted to head off planned protests over rising fuel costs by announcing a series of measures to help poorer families pay their bills.

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Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Wednesday ruled out a U-turn on higher taxes on diesel, considered a major source of air pollution, but promised to do more to help poor families shoulder the cost. "We have heard the need of the French to be assisted in the (ecological) transition, which is difficult," he said.

The "yellow vest" movement, named after the high-visibility jackets worn by protesters, is the latest to rattle Macron's centrist government. Around 600 protests are planned around the country on Saturday.

With the rising cost of living fueling the anger against the neoliberal economic policies of Macron, a former bank executive, Philippe announced that 5.6 million households would receive energy subsidies, up from 3.6 million currently.

The state will also double the scrappage bonus on polluting vehicles for France's poorest families, expand the scheme to target one million motorists in total over five years and introduce fuel tax credits for those who use their cars a lot for work.

The measures appeared unlikely however to appease the "angry vests," who have tapped into frustration with Macron's policies, seen as favoring high-earners in cities over the rural population and the poor.

Officially, the measure is implemented in a bid to fight climate change, and received the —cautious— support of the environmental organizations gathered in Réseau climat. The federation welcomed a "necessary measure that will release France from its oil addiction," yet admitting that French people were "vulnerable" to increases in oil prices.

However, the daily paper Le Monde revealed earlier this month that out of the US$42.8 billion generated to the public budget by the new tax, only US$9.5 billion (about one fifth) will be reallocated to the environment.

French journal Liberation found that the measure will affect five more times the 10 percent poorest French families as compared to the 10 percent richest — giving further evidence that Macron's move actually means to rebalance the state budget affected by the earlier measures, like the suppression of taxes for the wealthiest.

The leader of the protests in the central-eastern Dole region, Fabrice Schlegel, said he hoped some 1,500 cars would turn out to snarl traffic on Saturday. "We've been scorned for years; for years we've been talked down to. It's time for us, the little people, the non-political, non trade-union people, to rise up," he told a recent rally.

In 2013, a protest by the Breton 'Red Caps' over an environmental tax on trucks led to running battles between police and demonstrators. The Socialist government of then-President Francois Hollande eventually backed down.

During a tour of the provinces last week to try to reconnect with rural voters, Macron — whose approval ratings have sunk to under 30 percent — was repeatedly harangued over fuel prices. The protests, which according to an Odoxa poll are supported by 78 percent of the French, come at a tough time for Macron after a political scandal over the summer and a series of cabinet resignations.

The price of diesel has risen around 23 percent over the past 12 months to an average of US$1.70 per liter — its highest point since the early 2000s.

But France's president is also taking heat from environmentalists, who accuse him of not living up to his promise to "Make Our Planet Great Again."

Opposition parties from both the left and the right have sought to tap into the discontent. Eric Coquerel, a lawmaker from the leftist France Unbowed, said the French were "not just mobilizing because of petrol prices. "They are fed up," he declared. Meanwhile, several analysts have warned that the discontent will mostly fuel the rise of the far-right.

Unions have staged several nationwide strikes since the start of the year, while SNCF rail workers have been carrying out rolling strikes on two of every five days of the week since April over plans to reform the company and open it to competition. 

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