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Paris in trauma

Fuelled by frustration from France's poor rural regions, the simmering protests against rising fuel taxes and mounting inequalities have turned Paris into the scene of violent clashes

GUERET (France) • At the bare bottom of Mr Florian Dou's shopping cart at the discount supermarket, there was a packet of US$6 (S$8.20) sausages and not much else. It was the end of last week, and the end of the month. At that point, "my salary and my wife's have been gone for 10 days", he lamented.

How to survive those days between when the money runs out and when his pay cheque arrives for his work as a warehouse handler has become a monthly challenge. The same is true for many others in Gueret, a grim provincial town in south-central France. And it has made Mr Dou angry.

So he used what money he had left and drove 400km to join the fiery protests last Saturday in Paris, where police moved in with tear gas and rubber bullets.

"We knew they were sent in to get rid of us," he said the day after.

But Mr Dou vows they are not going anywhere. The "gilets jaunes" or "yellow vests" protests he is a part of present an extraordinary venting of rage and resentment by ordinary working people, aimed at the mounting inequalities that have eroded their lives.

The unrest began in response to rising fuel taxes and has been building in intensity over the past three weeks, peaking last Saturday.

With little organisation and relying mostly on social media, the protesters have moved spontaneously from the rural regions over the past month to the banks of the Seine.

On Sunday, President Emmanuel Macron toured the graffiti-scrawled monuments of the capital and the damage along some of the richest shopping streets in Europe.

  • CASUALTIES AND ARRESTS

  • Number of people who died in the protests around France.

  • 260

    Number of people wounded.

  • 400 

    Number of people arrested.

The protests have left three dead and more than 260 wounded, with more than people 400 arrested.

Mr Macron had previously insisted that he would not back down in the face of popular resistance to reforms and his government had also ruled out imposing a state of emergency. Yesterday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe met opposition leaders as the government sought a way to defuse the protests.

Named for the roadside safety vests worn by demonstrators, the protests have welled up from silent towns like Gueret, an administrative centre of 13,000 people, lost in the small valleys of central France.

Far from any big city, it sits in one of the poorest departments of France, where the public hospital is the biggest employer.

The stories of Mr Dou's neighbours who also joined the protests were much like his own.

Inside Ms Laetitia Depourtoux's freezer were hunks of frozen meat, a twice-a-year gift from her farmer-father, and the six-member family's meat ration.

On cold nights, Mr Joel Decoux's oven burned the wood he chopped himself because he cannot afford gas for heating.

Mr Dou said his nine-year-old son has never been on vacation and his gross salary of €1,300 (S$2,000) "disappears immediately in the bills". There is little left after taxes and costly utilities like electricity.

The protesters can now be found waiting at the roadblocks as you enter town - truck and bus drivers, nurses, out-of-work electricians, housewives, warehouse handlers, part-time civil servants and construction workers on disability aid.

None of the Gueret protesters expressed allegiance to any politician: Most said politics disgusted them.

Mr Fabrice Girardin, 46, a former carpet-layer who now looks after other people's pets to get by, said: "We live with stress. Every month, at the end of the month, we say, 'will there be enough to eat?'"

NYTIMES, REUTERS

 


What the protests are about

WHO ARE THE PROTESTERS? 

The "gilets jaunes" movement - so named because supporters don the yellow safety vests carried in all French vehicles - sprang up spontaneously last month in response to hikes in car fuel taxes.

Backed by people in small towns and the countryside where most get around by car, it has snowballed into a wider movement against President Emmanuel Macron's perceived bias in favour of the rich and big cities.
Organised via social media, the movement lacks any structure, with supporters hailing from a range of social and political backgrounds.

Their goals are amorphous. Many complain they barely scrape by and get scant public services in exchange for some of the highest tax bills in Europe. Some want to reverse Mr Macron's tax cuts for the rich. Many have called on the business-friendly President to resign.

HOW HAS PRESIDENT MACRON REACTED? 

Mr Macron last week said he has heard the people's anger, but that the hikes are needed to help spur a switch to greener energy in order to fight climate change. After earlier proposals helping poor families failed to stave off the protests, he offered more minor concessions such as a review of fuel taxes in cases of a surge in world oil prices.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said on Sunday the President was open to dialogue but would not reverse policy reforms.

WHAT ARE HIS OPTIONS? 

The protests have driven Mr Macron's popularity to record lows and left him facing a lose-lose situation, said Mr Gael Sliman, president of the Odoxa polling institute. Mr Macron is now faced with either caving in to the pressure and being derided by his opponents as weak, or being pushed to put down the dissent.

While the protesters have called for Parliament to be dissolved and for snap elections to be held, such an outcome is unlikely. Mr Macron has 31/2 years left of his five-year mandate and a strong majority in Parliament, albeit with signs of simmering unease on the backbenches over the protests.

While it remains to be seen how long the protests will last, Mr Jerome Saint-Marie, head of research agency Pollingvox, said the dissatisfaction and anger with government policies "will not go away quickly".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2018, with the headline 'Paris in trauma'. Print Edition | Subscribe