France Scraps Fuel Tax Hike But Protesters Add New Demands

13 hours ago
Originally published on December 7, 2018 8:02 am
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The French government's concessions to try and calm down a protest movement have not worked. Demonstrators will be back in Paris Saturday wearing their yellow vests and carrying a new list of demands. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley met some of the yellow vest protesters in the north of France, and she sent this report.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking in French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: "It's the American public radio. Does anybody speak English," a protester yells out to his comrades as he greets me at this yellow vest encampment outside on a traffic circle along a rural highway not far from the Belgian border.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking in French).

BEARDSLEY: Turns out no one speaks English, but they're happy to welcome a foreign reporter to what they call their headquarters. The protesters are decorating a Christmas tree, and they've built a bonfire.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE CRACKLING)

BEARDSLEY: Julien Birch is among the 25 or so people manning the post. He says he comes every day between his shifts as a hospital orderly.

JULIEN BIRCH: (Speaking through interpreter) We've been overwhelmed with all kinds of taxes for too long. Gas is going up, tolls are higher and we can hardly afford to drive to work anymore. We're at a point where we're not living - we're just surviving. So it's time for the French to come together and say stop.

BEARDSLEY: Birch shows me a lean-to they've built with boards and scrap metal. It's stocked with sausages, chips and wine. He says people drop off food so the protesters can man their camp day and night.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

BEARDSLEY: Polls show more than 70 percent of the French support the yellow vest movement, despite last weekend's violence. That's obvious here where truckers and motorists honk in solidarity. Some drivers even pull over to chat. Franck Lalois has placed a yellow vest on his dashboard.

FRANCK LALOIS: (Speaking through interpreter) We're 100 percent behind them. Everyone is feeling the pinch. Our buying power is decreasing. Even those who earn more than the minimum wage can feel it.

BEARDSLEY: The yellow vest movement rose up in small towns and rural areas like this one, where people are dependent on their cars. The gas tax and new vehicle inspection norms would have hit hard here, where many people drive old, polluting diesel cars. The government has now dropped those measures, but the gesture may have come too late. The protesters are angry, and they have new demands like raising the minimum wage and dissolving parliament. There are a couple things that particularly rankled the yellow vest protesters. One is that President Emmanuel Macron has scrapped a tax on the super-rich, says protester Corinne Ryckaert.

CORINNE RYCKAERT: (Speaking through interpreter) Macron is the president of the rich. He gives them tax breaks and makes the little people pay an ecology tax. He's hit the wrong people. We are for the planet, but cruise ships and planes pollute a lot more than our little cars do.

BEARDSLEY: This crowd says Macron's proposals show how out of touch he is with the lives of working-class people. Before he was forced to drop his gas tax, Macron had offered 100 euros back for the purchase of energy efficient windows that cost tens of thousands of euros.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING)

BEARDSLEY: These yellow vest protesters say they used to block traffic to get attention, but they don't have to anymore. They've become a national sensation.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Hazebrouck, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.