PARIS - The French government plans to announce Tuesday the suspension of fuel tax increases slated for January in a bid to quell the fierce protests which have ballooned into the deepest crisis of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, sources said.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will also unveil other measures to help boost the living standards of low-income households, the government sources said.
Pressure has been mounting after the grassroots “yellow vest” movement degenerated into fiery street clashes and vandalism in Paris over the weekend, leading to scores of injuries and arrests.
Rescinding the fuel tax hike was the main demand of the demonstrators, alongside a higher minimum wage and the return of a wealth tax on high-earners which was abolished last year.
But Philippe’s office said he would not meet a “yellow vest” delegation Tuesday for “security reasons,” after several said they had received threats from protesters contesting their claim to represent the grassroots movement.
Jacline Mouraud and Benjamin Cauchy, two of the leaders of the protests, said they had received threats from hard-line protesters who warned them against entering into negotiations with the government.
The crisis prompted Macron to postpone a planned visit to Belgrade due to the “problems” at home, his Serbian counterpart President Aleksandar Vucic announced on Monday.
Macron has not spoken publicly about Saturday’s destruction in Paris since his return from a G20 summit in Argentina at the weekend.
His only message, published on his official Twitter account on Monday, has been about the need to help disabled people and their caregivers, leading to more criticism that he is too aloof.
On Monday, he had lunch with police from a Paris barracks that was involved in trying to quell the riots.
The 40-year-old centrist was elected in May 2017 on a pro-business platform that included measures to incite companies to invest to create jobs.
Immediately after coming to power, he pushed through tax cuts for entrepreneurs and high-earners.
Those measures stirred anger among the “yellow vests” who have blocked highways around the country over the past two weeks.
Mass street protests have repeatedly forced previous French presidents into U-turns, but Macron has until now styled himself as an inflexible reformer capable of standing up to pressure.
“The longer this goes on, the higher the political price,” Bruno Cautres of the Cevipof political research institute warned on Monday in an interview.
Four people have been killed during the protests, including an 80-year-old woman who died in hospital on Sunday after being hit by a tear gas canister in Marseille.
Paris police said 412 people were arrested during the clashes in the capital on Saturday and 363 remained in custody, according to the latest figures.
Some of those who appeared in court Monday had long criminal records for violent crime and clashing with police, but others included a 21-year-old with a master’s degree in finance.
The unrest degenerated into arson and looting around the Champs-Elysees avenue and other tourist attractions on Saturday, leading to shocking images that were broadcast round the world.
Business leaders warned it could cause shoppers to flee during the busy end-of-year holiday period.
Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said Monday that hotel reservations had fallen by “around 15 to 20 percent” since the start of the protests.
On Monday, the protests spread to around a hundred schools nationwide, which were partially or totally blocked by teenagers voicing frustration over university entrance reforms.
At the Spanish border, thousands of trucks were caught in tailbacks stretching nearly 20 kilometers (30 miles) as the protesters blocked roads.
Far-right National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen, who has been cheering on the protests, tweeted that she had asked Philippe during their meeting to “end the strategy of confrontation chosen by Emmanuel Macron for the past three weeks.”
Le Maire, the economy minister, said the solution for tackling low purchasing power for struggling families lay in reducing the overall tax burden in France, which is among the highest in Europe.
“We must speed up the reduction of taxes,” he said. “But for that we must speed up the decrease in public spending.”