French President Macron to address nation as calls grow to act on 'yellow vest' protests

File photo of France's President Emmanuel Macron delivering a speech during a meeting with French mayors, in Paris, on Nov 21, 2018.
File photo of France's President Emmanuel Macron delivering a speech during a meeting with French mayors, in Paris, on Nov 21, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - Amid loud calls for him to end the "yellow vest" crisis gripping France, President Emmanuel Macron will address the nation on Monday (Dec 10) as the authorities count the cost of weeks of anti-government protests.

The President will speak to the French people at 8pm (3am on Tuesday, Singapore time), his Elysee office announced - Mr Macron's first public comments after four weeks of nationwide anti-government demonstrations which again turned violent last Saturday in Paris and other cities.

Mr Macron, who has been the target of many protesters' anger over his perceived pro-rich policies, was expected to announce "immediate and concrete measures" to respond to the crisis, added Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud.

The embattled 40-year-old president will also meet trade unionists and business leaders earlier on Monday.

Officials said anti-Macron riots in Paris last Saturday had been less violent than a week earlier, with fewer people injured, but damage to property across the capital was far worse.

Burned-out cars dotted the streets in several neighbourhoods on Sunday as cleaners swept up the broken glass from smashed shop windows and bus stops.

"There was much more dispersion (of protesters), so many more places were impacted," Paris deputy mayor Emmanuel Gregoire told France Inter radio. "There was much more damage."

The south-western city of Bordeaux was also badly hit by rioting on the fourth weekend of nationwide protests.

What began as demonstrations against fuel tax hikes has ballooned into a mass movement over rising living costs.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the unrest was a "catastrophe" for the French economy, with roadblocks playing havoc with traffic and riots putting off tourists from visiting Paris.

Parts of the capital went on lockdown last Saturday, with department stores shut to avoid looting, along with museums and monuments including the Eiffel Tower.

Protesters hail overwhelmingly from rural and small-town France but have a range of different goals, from lower taxes to Mr Macron's resignation.

"It is clear that we underestimated people's need to make themselves heard," government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told Europe 1 radio.

 
 
 

"It is anger that is difficult to understand from an office in Paris," he acknowledged.

Mr Alain Juppe, mayor of Bordeaux, where a protester lost his hand after picking up an anti-riot grenade, joined calls from across the political spectrum for Mr Macron to respond.

"This disorder must end," the former prime minister tweeted. "The President must speak, and speak quickly."

MASS ARRESTS

The protests have shown little sign of easing since they began on Nov 17.

The interior ministry said 136,000 people took part nationwide in last Saturday's protests, which turned violent in several cities including Marseille and Toulouse.

In Paris, around 10,000 "yellow vests" flocked to the Champs-Elysees and other areas.

Nationwide, more than 2,000 people were detained - over 1,000 of them in Paris as police vowed "zero tolerance" for troublemakers.

France's chief prosecutor Remy Heitz said those arrested had "a very similar profile to last week", including many far-right and far-left agitators.

Most of the protesters rounded up were men younger than 40, without previous criminal records, from across France.

"Prosecutors have clearly decided not to let the violence committed in Paris go unpunished," he told reporters, adding that nearly 100 minors were among those detained.

WAGE HIKES RULED OUT

The crisis facing a leader who had been hailed internationally as a youthful defender of liberal values is being closely watched abroad.

Spain's El Pais newspaper said it was the first time Mr Macron was "hesitating, giving the impression that he does not know what to do".

He has already offered protesters a string of concessions, including scrapping further fuel tax rises in 2019 - a major climbdown for a President who had vowed not to be swayed, like his predecessors, by mass protests.

But so far, he has refused to back down on another policy hated by the "yellow vests": His decision to scrap a tax on the assets of France's wealthiest.

Ms Penicaud on Sunday also rejected the idea of a hike in the minimum wage, saying it would have knock-on effects for the whole economy.

"We know that destroys jobs," she told LCI television.

"If we raise all salaries automatically, many businesses would just go bust - or they would have to raise their prices, and no one would pay for their services."

RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA ACCOUNTS?

The movement has spread beyond France's borders, with around 400 arrested at a "yellow vest" event in Brussels last Saturday and peaceful demonstrations taking place in Dutch towns.

In France, the authorities have also launched an investigation into social media activity from accounts allegedly drumming up support for the protests, sources told AFP.

According to Britain's Times newspaper, hundreds of online accounts linked to Russia were used to stoke the demonstrations.

Citing analysis by New Knowledge, a cyber-security company, the Times said the accounts spread disinformation and used pictures of injured protesters from other events to enhance a narrative of brutality by French authorities.