The French government has announced it is suspending a planned increase in fuel tax for six months in response to nationwide protests against the policy.
Prime minister Édouard Philippe confirmed the U-turn at Tuesday lunchtime after an escalation in the so-called ‘gilets jaunes‘ demonstrations over the weekend.
“Setting the course and holding it is a necessity to govern France. But no tax deserves to jeopardize the unity of the nation,” Mr Philippe said in a reconciliatory televised address.
The “yellow vest” protesters, named after the fluorescent safety clothing that all French motorists are obliged to keep in their cars, have been marching since mid-November against President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals to increase the price of diesel.
Mr Philippe said the measure, which was to come into effect on 1 January, would now be delayed for six months – meaning it would land the summer. He additionally pledged that the price of electricity would not increase for the same period.
But he stopped short of scrapping the tax altogether, warning: “The French do not want any increase in taxes or new taxes. If taxes go down, spending will have to go down.”
The government says the new policy is necessary to meet France’s international environmental obligations, but many of the protesters say they resent the increased cost of living the charges would bring.
In recent weeks the demonstrations have become about more than the tax rise, and morphed into general concerns about the cost of living. Slogans brandished by marchers in Paris this weekend castigated the centrist pro-business government, which is allied with president Emmanuel Macron, of being out of touch and in the pocked of the rich.
The prime minister said on Tuesday his government was facing the “wrath of France that works hard, struggling to make both ends meet”.
More than 130 people were injured and over 400 arrested this weekend as protests turned violent in Paris, with looting on the famous Champs Élysées and vandalism of the Arc de Triomphe.
In his address to the nation, the prime minister criticised the actions of the protesters.
“All French have the right to demonstrate, recognizes the prime minister. But all French people also have the right to security. The government does not accept violence,” he said.
He added: “The perpetrators of these acts are wanted and will be punished. If there is another day of mobilisation on Saturday, it must be declared and proceed calmly.”
Mr Macron’s approval ratings dropped once again to new lows this week, with just 23 per cent approving, according to a poll published by Paris Match.