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article imageFierce tax protests put France's Macron in a bind

By Jérôme RIVET (AFP)     Dec 3, 2018 in World

Emmanuel Macron has pledged to restore disillusioned voters' trust in government by diligently delivering on his election promises, but his refusal to bow to the demands of tax protesters could hobble his presidency, experts say.

The "yellow vest" movement, which degenerated into street clashes and vandalism in Paris over the weekend, has emerged as the most serious challenge yet for the reform-minded former investment banker.

Calls are growing for Macron to give ground in his standoff with the protestors, who are furious over fuel taxes and other policies they say favour the rich.

So far he has refused to back down on the fuel tax hikes, offering instead a 500 million euro ($567 million) package of measures to help poor families pay their energy and transport bills.

Those overtures have been scorned by yellow vest leaders, who have vowed to press ahead with a movement which enjoys the backing of 70 to 80 percent of the French, according to opinion polls.

"The longer it goes on, the higher the political price," said Bruno Cautres of the Cevipof political research institute.

"But it's not clear if he's capable of fully understanding what's going on," he said.

Macron drew mockery early in his presidency for comparing his job to that of the Roman king of the gods Jupiter, staying above the fray of daily politics to focus on his long-term reform drive.

Yet in refusing to cancel the fuel taxes, analysts say Macron risks appearing insensitive to the plight of rural and small-town voters who have long felt abandoned by Parisian elites.

At the same time, ceding ground after dozens of cars were torched and businesses were looted might appear to be giving in to violence, and draw the ire of voters who back the government and its anti-pollution efforts.

"Emmanuel Macron is right not to speak because for now what he's saying isn't being heard," said Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, a political communications adviser.

"The only way to be heard now would be to announce major, concrete and immediate measures," he said.

- 'Tipping point' -

So far Macron has succeeded in standing firm against opposition to unpopular reforms, not least those he has overseen affecting labour laws, the public sector and the state rail operator SNCF.

Yet even in Macron's own party officials are urging a more proactive response to the yellow vests, so-called because of the high-visibility jackets which have come to symbolise the movement.

"We have doubtlessly been too distant, too technocratic, too sure of ourselves, too tone deaf at times," said Stanislas Guerini, who was elected head of Macron's Republic on the Move party as the violent protests raged Saturday.

Opposition lawmakers are calling for the suspension of new fuel tax increases set for January, or the cancellation of gas and electricity tariff hikes in the coming weeks.

Yellow vest leaders are also insisting that Macron reinstate the "wealth tax" on high earners which he eliminated shortly after his election.

Even in Macron's own camp many fear the movement could herald a broader populist wave, echoing the nationalist movements in other European nations which Macron has vowed to combat ahead of European Parliament elections next May.

"The dynamic is under way," said one of Macron's advisers under cover of anonymity.

"Emmanuel Macron has become more unpopular than (his predecessor) Francois Hollande and his political base is so weak," said Moreau-Chevrolet, adding that the president appeared to be "in denial".

And if the conflict deepens, Macron may find himself further isolated, compromising his ambitions for further economic reforms.

"Yellow vests: The tipping point of the presidency," French daily Le Monde headlined a front-page editorial Monday.

It would be an ironic turn of events for a president who swept away traditional parties by securing a groundswell of popular support from voters tired of politics as usual.

"The Napoleonic method which worked at first for launching his reforms is no longer working," Moreau-Chevrolet said.

"It's the end of an unprecedented political experiment in French history," he added. "And frankly, we're entering the unknown."

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