French authorities are worried that another wave of “great violence” and rioting will be unleashed in Paris this weekend by a hard core of several thousand ‘yellow vest’ protesters, an official in the French presidency said on Thursday.
Despite capitulating this week over plans for fuel taxes that inspired the nationwide revolt, President Emmanuel Macron has struggled to quell the anger that led to the worst street unrest in central Paris since 1968.
Rioters torched cars, shattered windows, looted shops and sprayed and anti-Macron graffiti across some of Paris’s most affluent districts, even defacing the Arc de Triomphe. Scores of people were hurt and hundreds arrested in battles with police.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced late on Wednesday that he was scrapping the fuel-tax increases planned for 2019, having announced a six-month suspension the day before, in a desperate bid to defuse the worst crisis of Macron’s presidency.
The Elysee official said intelligence suggested that some protesters would come to the capital “to vandalise and to kill”.
The threat of more violence poses a security nightmare for the authorities, who make a distinction between peaceful ‘yellow vest’ protesters and violent groups, anarchists and looters from the deprived suburbs who they say have infiltrated the movement.
The yellow vest protests, named for fluorescent jackets French motorists are required to keep in their cars, erupted in November over the squeeze on household budgets caused by fuel taxes. Demonstrations swiftly grew into a broad, sometimes-violent rebellion against Macron, with no formal leader.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer urged people to stay at home during the coming weekend. Security sources said the government was considering using troops currently deployed on anti-terrorism patrols to protect public buildings.
The fuel-tax volte-face was the first major U-turn of Macron’s 18-month presidency and points to an administration scrambling to regain the initiative as disenchanted citizens feel emboldened on the streets.
The unrest has exposed the deep-seated resentment among non-city dwellers that Macron is out-of-touch with the hard-pressed middle class and blue-collar labourers. They see the 40-year-old former investment banker as closer to big business.
Trouble is also brewing elsewhere for Macron: college students are agitating, farmers who have long complained that retailers are squeezing their margins and are furious over a delay to the planned rise in minimum food prices, and truckers are threatening to strike from Sunday.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said he was committed to “fiscal justice” and on Thursday announced France would unilaterally impose a tax on big internet companies if European Union members failed to reach an agreement on a bloc-wide levy.
While such a step might not be directly related to the ‘yellow vest’ movement — France has been leading negotiations for an EU-wide tax on digital revenues for months — the government will hope that it appeals to the protesters’ anti-big business sentiment.
Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin said abandoning plans to for further fuel-tax hikes in 2019 would cost the treasury 4 billion euros ($4.53 billion). Pressed on whether deficit targets were in jeopardy, he replied: “We will keep our books in order.”