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France scraps 2019 fuel tax increase for good in face of continued protests

In the face of ongoing protests and rioting, the French government now says a planned fuel tax increase that President Emmanuel Macron argued was crucial to fight climate change won’t happen at all in 2019.

The government had announced a six-month suspension of the tax just yesterday, the first big policy reversal of Macron’s 18-month-old government.

But 24 hours later, amid continued anger on the streets and a parliamentary debate on the 2019 budget, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe suddenly told his fellow legislators that “the tax is now abandoned” in the 2019 budget and that the government is “ready for dialogue.”

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe speaks during an emergency debate in France’s National Assembly over the fuel protests in Paris Wednesday. The concessions made by French president Emmanuel Macron’s government in a bid to stop the huge and violent anti-government demonstrations seemed on Wednesday to have failed to convince protesters.(Michel Euler/Associated Press)

“I have no problem with admitting that on such or such question we could have done differently, that if there is such a level of anger … it’s because we still have a lot of things to improve,” Philippe said.

The budget can be renegotiated through the year, but given the scale of the recent protests, Macron is unlikely to revive the added fuel tax idea anytime soon.

French protesters are welcoming Macron’s decision to scrap a fuel tax rise — but say it may not be enough to contain public anger.

Jacline Mouraud, one of the self-proclaimed spokespeople for the yellow vest movement, told the AP that Macron’s concession “comes much too late, unfortunately.”

“It’s on the right path, but in my opinion it will not fundamentally change the movement,” she said.

A protester holds a French flag as he hangs by a crane at a roundabout in Cissac-Medoc, France on Wednesday. The slogan reads ‘Urgent, purchase power, dignity for all.’ (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

Three weeks of protests have left four people dead, hundreds injured and central Paris littered with burned cars and shattered windows.

The so-called “yellow vest” movement was mostly peaceful to begin with. People angry about the planned tax increase donned the yellow emergency vests all French drivers must have in their cars in case of a breakdown and took to the streets in mid-November.

A firefighter walks through extinguished burning material near the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Élysées in Paris on Nov. 24 after a rally by yellow vest protesters against rising oil prices and living costs. (Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images)

The past two weekends, though, saw outpourings of violence and rioting in Paris, with extreme far-right and far-left factions joining the demonstrations. It was the worst anti-government rioting since 1968. At least four people died, and police feared more violence would come this Saturday in the French capital.

French students set fires outside high schools to protest a new university application system; small business owners blocked roads to protest high taxes, and retirees marched to protest against the president’s perceived elitism.

And the six month-suspension announcement did nothing to quell the anger.

Protests planned by farmers’ union

On Wednesday, France’s largest farmers’ union said it will launch anti-government protests next week, after trucking unions called for a rolling strike.

Trade unions have not so far played a role in the yellow vest protest movement but are now trying to capitalize on the growing public anger. A joint statement from two trucking unions called for action Sunday night to protest a cut in overtime rates.

The FNSEA farmers’ union said it would fight to help French farmers earn a better income but would not officially be joining forces with the “yellow vests.”

High school students set a barricade on fire to block the tramway during a demonstration against French government education reforms Wednesday in Bordeaux, southwestern France. (Nicolas Tucat/AFP/Getty Images)

Mouraud said each of the disparate protesting groups will decide what to do next, but many will probably keep protesting. She urged protesters to seize on the French government’s weakness to push other demands such as a rise in the minimum wage.

French President Emmanuel Macron has not spoken publicly about the protests since returning from the G20 Leaders’ Summit over the weekend in Argentina. (Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

Macron has refrained from speaking publicly about the protests and has largely remained in his palace. On Tuesday night, he was jeered as he travelled to a regional government headquarters that was torched by protesters last weekend.

One activist said Wednesday that he fears more deaths if Saturday’s yellow vest demonstration in Paris goes ahead and urged Macron to speak out and calm the nation.

“If not there will be chaos,” said Christophe Chalencon. The 52-year-old blacksmith from southern France told the AP the French public needs Macron to “admit he made a mistake, with simple words … that touch the guts and heart of the French.”

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