President Emmanuel Macron warned his cabinet on Monday that violent protests against diesel tax hikes in France risked unnerving foreigners and pressed his government to respond to the concerns of voters.
Police on Saturday fired tear gas and water cannons at thousands of protesters, who trashed restaurants and shop-fronts and set wheelie bins ablaze on the upmarket Champs Elysees in Paris, a magnet for tourists.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of these images of the Champs-Elysees, with battle scenes that were broadcast by the media in France and abroad,” government spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, told a news conference.
The demonstrations, now in their second week, have seen the “yellow vests” protesters block roads across the country, impeding access to some fuel depots, out-of-town shopping malls and factories.
“Behind this anger there is obviously something deeper and which we must answer, because this anger, these anxieties have existed for a long time,” Griveaux added.
The social unrest is a quandary for a president, who casts himself as a champion of the fight against climate change but is battling tumbling popularity ratings and voter criticism that he is out of touch with life outside France’s major cities.
Macron refuses to reverse the diesel tax increases, conscious he needs the support of Green Party members as he seeks to build a broad alliance ahead of next year’s European elections, as well as the tax revenues the levy generates.
However, the former investment banker has in past days shown a growing willingness to ensure financial support for low-income motorists, at a time many households complain his economic reforms have eroded their spending power.
Similarly, the French government has dropped plans that would have eased the introduction of urban tolls amid nationwide protests against rising fuel costs, the transport minister said on Monday.
In October, Transport Minister, Elisabeth Borne, said a new law on mobility would allow cities to introduce congestion pricing in a bid to cut traffic jams and pollution.
But in the past two weeks, France has seen nationwide protests against rising fuel costs, with demonstrators clad in fluorescent jackets – dubbed “yellow vests” – blocking highways and setting up barricades, hoping to force the government to row back on new taxes on petrol and diesel.
The unrest came to a head in Paris on Saturday, when police clashed violently with thousands of demonstrators on the Champs-Elysees, with more than 100 protesters detained.
At a presentation of the draft mobility law following a cabinet meeting on Monday, Borne said that it would not include urban tolls as had previously been proposed.
“The perception is that this measure would create new territorial divides, and hence it will not be part of the draft law,” she said.
She added that the government’s transport policy would focus on providing more alternatives for individual car ownership.
This will include improving railway connections to smaller cities, which have been left behind as France focuses on building high-speed TGV lines between its major cities, and on encouraging car sharing and cycling.