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French unions join protests, piling new pressure on Macron

France's largest farmers' union said it will launch anti-government protests next week after trucking unions called for a rolling strike

By AP in Paris

  • Published 6.12.18, 1:11 AM
  • Updated 6.12.18, 9:50 AM
Demonstrators stand near toll gates on a motorway at Biarritz in southwestern France on Wednesday.
Demonstrators stand near toll gates on a motorway at Biarritz in southwestern France on Wednesday. AP

Nationwide protests against French President Emmanuel Macron took on an even bigger dimension Wednesday after trade unions and farmers vowed to join the fray, unimpressed by government concessions that tried to stem the momentum of the most violent demonstrations France has seen in a decade.

The "yellow vest" protests began over a government plan to raise fuel taxes, but by the time Prime Minister Edouard Philippe bowed to three weeks of violence and suspended the plan Tuesday, the protesters were demanding much more. Many workers in France are angry over the combination of low wages, high taxes and high unemployment that have left many people struggling financially.

Macron's popularity has slumped to a new low since the first demonstrations took place on November 17. The former investment banker, who has pushed pro-business economic reforms to make France more globally competitive, is accused of being the "president of the rich" and of being estranged from the working classes.

The sweep of the protests and their wide support by citizens of all political stripes have shocked the government. In the last few days, Paris saw the worst anti-government protest riot since 2005. 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 the president's perceived elitism.

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 the CGT and the FO trucking unions called for action Sunday night to protest a cut in overtime rates. France's transportation minister agreed to meet with truckers' representatives on Thursday.

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" — protesters wearing the high-visibility vests that French motorists are required to keep in their cars.

French police have cleared most of the fuel depots that protesters had blocked earlier in the week, but fuel shortages continued to hit parts of France on Wednesday, with hundreds of gas stations affected.

Demonstrators were also blocking toll booths, letting drivers pass without paying, to press demands that ranged from higher incomes and pensions to the dissolution of the National Assembly, France's parliament.

At Tolbiac University in downtown Paris, students took over a school building and classes were cancelled.

"We need taxes, but they are not properly redistributed," protester Thomas Tricottet told BFM television. "We obviously need to fight against this."

The high school students' FIDL union called for a "massive and general mobilization" on Thursday and urged France's education minister to step down.

One student was injured during protests at a high school in Saint-Jean-de-Braye in north-central France. BFM said he was shot in the head with a rubber bullet but authorities did not confirm that. Julien Guiller, a spokesman for the regional school administration, told The Associated Press the student was expected to survive.

The French government is clearly on the back foot. A day after announcing a six-month suspension of the higher fuel tax, it opened the door for more concessions as spokesman Benjamin Griveaux did not rule out bringing back a wealth tax that was slashed after Macron came to power in May 2017.

"If something isn't working, we're not dumb — we'll change it," Griveaux told RTL radio, though he said, "the issue is not on the table for now."

That's one reason other groups are joining the yellow vest protests — they hope to win concessions from France's weakened government.

Since returning from the G-20 summit in Argentina over the weekend, Macron's actions have done little to reassure protesters that he is listening to their concerns.

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

Four people have been killed in the unrest since mid-November. 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 bring calm to the nation.

"If not there will be chaos," said Christophe Chalencon, a 52-year-old blacksmith from southern France.

He told the AP that the French public needs Macron to "admit he made a mistake, with simple words ... that touch the guts and heart of the French."

By caving into French protesters' demands to halt the new fuel tax, Macron has lost some credibility in his fight against climate change.

U.S. President Donald Trump rubbed that notion in Macron's face, claiming that his decision to delay the tax hikes showed that the French leader doesn't believe in the 2015 Paris global climate accord.

"I am glad that my friend @EmmanuelMacron and the protesters in Paris have agreed with the conclusion I reached two years ago," Trump wrote on Twitter. "The Paris Agreement is fatally flawed because it raises the price of energy for responsible countries while whitewashing some of the worst polluters."

The Trump tweet came as thousands of climate experts were spending two weeks in Poland to further work out national responsibilities in the global fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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