France protests continue against President Macron’s fuel tax, supported by citizens instead of unions

French President Emmanuel Macron refused to drop the fuel hikes that sparked nationwide protests but promised to make them fairer. Citizens are angry over planned hikes in “green taxes” on diesel and petrol which has morphed into a wider revolt against basic living costs, high taxes, and a sense of state abandonment in suburban and provincial France. The federal government will increase fuel taxes in January, which protesters say penalises rich and poor alike. Almost eight in ten French citizens support the "Yellow Jacket" protests, according to a poll published last week.

The fuel tax has become an outlet for people to express their discontent with the high cost of living in France and with Macron's presidency generally. A poll published last Friday found that only 26 percent of French citizens have a favorable opinion of Macron. On January 1, the tax on gasoline will go up by 12 cents per gallon and on diesel by 28 cents per gallon, according to French Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne. Gas taxes will go up by another 5 cents per gallon by 2020, with diesel jumping an additional 2 cents. As of this week, gasoline cost around USD $6.26 per gallon in Paris, while diesel was around USD $6.28 a gallon.

During the two weeks of protests by protesters dubbed “yellow vests” due to the high-visibility jackets they wear, two people have been killed and more than six hundred injured across France. President Macron said he understood the anger but criticized riots this past weekend on Paris’ Champs-Elysées as “war scenes” that risked tarnishing France’s image abroad. In one minor concession, President Macron proposed to review fuel tax rates quarterly to consider global oil prices. “The end of the world and the end of the month: we will and must manage both,” he said. He invited “yellow vest” representatives to take part in three months of grassroots discussions on how to create a "popular energy transition" that doesn't penalise the poor. Protesters were unimpressed and reiterated their anger and sentiment that the President is not genuinely listening to their concerns.

Despite showing sympathy for provincial voters affected by the rising fuel prices, President Macron said there's a "paradox" in the country where people wanted to cut taxes but keep a generous welfare state. He said his government had to “change method” to ensure there was no "two-speed France" where workers living outside cities felt forgotten by an urban elite. The President also announced plans to shut down fourteen of the country's fifty-eight nuclear reactors currently in operation by 2035, with between four and six closed by 2030. The government is also encouraging more people to car share and take public transportation instead of driving. Macron said he will also encourage the manufacturing of electronic cars and a better insulation of existing buildings. President Macron reiterated his support for reducing nuclear energy to 50 percent in 2035.

Joseph Downing, an expert in French politics at the London School of Economics, agreed that the protests were about "much more" than taxes on gas. "It's this entire idea of the squeezed middle or the squeezed upper working-class person who feels an entitlement to an ever-increasing standard of living but is something that no politician can deliver," he said. "This is where we've seen disenfranchisement with Sarkozy, with Hollande and now with Macron."

Emmanuel Macron is a 40-year-old former investment banker who swept to power last year under a new political party brand promising to end decades of high unemployment and to reform the European Union by aiming to loosen French labour laws and reform the social security system. Protests in France are typically organized and led by the country’s powerful unions, who President Macron has positioned himself against the unions with his labour market reforms, which made it easier for companies to hire and fire employees. Since President Macron’s election, French unions have failed to attract large crowds to demonstrate against the reforms. This "Yellow Jacket" movement has been organized for the most part over social media with Facebook groups and trending hashtags resulting in supporters descending into the streets. Mr. Downing said this self-organized approach was a relatively new phenomenon in France which has historically relied on unions to organize dissent. "I think there is a lot of disillusionment with the unions as well," he said. Mr. Krumbmüller said the fact that this protest was not organized by unions suggests it represents a "broader population" of people.