Low turnout as support wanes for France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests

  • Retail associations suffered an estimated US$2.3 billion in lost revenue in the run-up to Christmas because of the anti-government demonstrations
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 10:52pm

A seventh Saturday of “yellow vest” protests in France began slowly, continuing a downward trend since weekly demonstrations began in mid-November over the cost of living and a lack of household purchasing power.

French television showed images of several hundred protesters gathering in southwest Paris, with small numbers in the touristic centre and on the Champs-Elysees avenue, the scene of violent clashes with police on previous weekends.

Outside the French capital, around a thousand protesters gathered in the southern port city of Marseille, while about 10 people were arrested in Amiens, north of Paris, where protests had been banned after unrest last weekend.

Some protesters were planning to gather again on Paris’s Champs-Elysees during Monday’s New Year’s Eve celebrations, when President Emmanuel Macron is due to make a traditional annual address to the nation.

The “yellow vest” protests, named after the high-visibility jackets motorists must keep in their cars, started in early November with road blockages across France, with an initial demand for lower prices at the pump expanding into general anger about the rising cost of living and Macron’s governing style.

The protests led to violent clashes with police in the French capital in early December, with looting, torched cars and damage to shops, restaurants and property. They prompted Macron to cancel further carbon taxes planned for 2019, and he pledged other tax cuts and welfare payments in an effort to calm the movement.

While the number of people protesting has since dropped significantly, having peaked near 300,000 across the country on the first Saturday, Macron has not been able to quell the discontent.

The president was taking time off with his family until Sunday, LCI television reported on Saturday, citing the Elysee palace. In his annual address a year ago, Macron predicted 2018 would be a year of “national cohesion,” saying that irreconcilable divisions had undermined the country.

As it tries to respond to a revolt initially caused by its taxes on carbon, the government is also facing a separate petition launched less than two weeks ago that is close to meeting its goal of 2 million signatures calling for legal action against the French state for its supposed failure to act against global warming.

The government’s higher petrol taxes had been intended to subsidise purchases of cleaner cars and home heating systems, and it now has to find other resources to fund those programmes.

Macron said the measures announced in mid-December would increase France’s 2019 deficit, while the Bank of France and Insee statistics agency have cut their fourth-quarter economic growth forecasts in half. French retail associations have put lost revenue in the run-up to Christmas at 2 billion euros (US$2.3 billion).