Macron acknowledges protests over fuel taxes, but won't change course

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a military ceremony at the Invalides in Paris, on Nov 26, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a military ceremony at the Invalides in Paris, on Nov 26, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS • French President Emma-nuel Macron sought to take the heat out of mass anti-government protests over taxes yesterday, saying he had heard the anger but would not change course.

The 40-year-old centrist acknowledged that many struggling households felt penalised by an increase in fuel taxes this year, the spark for road blockades and demonstrations over the past 10 days.

He offered minor concessions, saying he would propose a mechanism to adjust tax hikes when they occur at the same time as an increase in oil prices internationally - as they have this year.

He also called for a three-month national consultation to draw up a road map for accelerating the country's transition away from fossil fuels - which he insisted remained his overall objective.

"What I've taken from these last few days is that we shouldn't change course because it is the right one and necessary," he told lawmakers at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

In an hour-long speech, Mr Macron repeated several times that he understood the anger expressed by hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets in high-visibility yellow jackets. He conceded that many French people felt that taxes were "imposed from above" and promised to accelerate the work of the government to lighten the load for working families and cut public spending.

One of the most frequent complaints from the so-called "yellow vests" is Mr Macron's perceived elitism, as well as his pro-business policies since taking office in May last year.

 
 
 

"I have seen, like many French people, the difficulties for people who have to drive a lot and have problems making ends meet at the end of the month," said Mr Macron.

"I believe very profoundly that we can transform this anger into the solution."

He also used the speech on France's energy transition - an address scheduled before the protests began - to announce a programme for closing nuclear reactors.

France will shut down 14 of the country's 58 nuclear reactors currently in operation by 2035, with between four and six closed by 2030, he announced.

The total includes the previously announced shutdown of France's two oldest reactors in Fessenheim, eastern France, which Mr Macron said was now set for summer 2020.

He also announced that France would close its remaining four coal-fired power plants as part of its anti-pollution efforts by 2022.

France relies on nuclear power for nearly 72 per cent of its electricity needs. The government wants to reduce this to 50 per cent by 2030 or 2035 by developing more renewable energy sources.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2018, with the headline 'Macron acknowledges protests over fuel taxes, but won't change course'. Print Edition | Subscribe