Early Christmas for France's 'yellow vests', but will they cheer?

Paris (AFP) –


Emmanuel Macron's government mobilised Tuesday to sell the financial relief offered to quell the "yellow vest" movement, after many of its members assailed the measures as not enough to end protests which have spiralled into weekends of violence and vandalism in Paris and other cities.

More than 21 million people watched a visibly contrite Macron declare a "state of economic and social emergency" in a televised address Monday, while loosening the government's purse strings to bolster the minimum wage and pension payouts for millions of people.

The measures, whose cost is estimated at 8 to 10 billion euros ($9-11.4 billion), include a 100-euro jump in the minimum wage next year, on top of the 1.8 percent increase already announced to keep up with inflation.

The moves are likely to push France's deficit above the EU's mandated 3 percent limit of GDP at least "temporarily," Richard Ferrand, the parliament president in Macron's Republic on the Move party, told RTL radio.

Without explicitly abandoning the government's target for a 2.8 percent deficit this year, he said having "a stable France" was the priority as the protests expose deep social divisions while taking a heavy economic toll.

"We can't continue like this," he said.

Even so, the measures might not mollify enough protesters to call off road blockades and weekly demonstrations in Paris. The unrest, which kicked off on November 17, has seen fierce clashes between protesters and police and extensive burning and looting over the past two Saturdays.

Many "yellow vests", so called for the high-visibility safety jackets they have donned, were swift to dismiss Macron's olive branches in the wake of his speech.

But others were ready to call a halt to the protests, welcoming the 40-year-old centrist's pledge to meet with the movement's members.

Jacline Mouraud, an accordionist from the Brittany region whose YouTube tirade in October against fuel taxes helped spark the protests, called Monday for a "truce".

"The economy is suffering, shop owners are on the verge of having to shut down, we don't want to be responsible for a wave of bankruptcies," Mouraud said.

- 'May have an impact' -

Officials were dispatched for radio and TV interviews early Tuesday to defend Macron's proposals, including the headline 100-euro hike in the minimum wage.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told BFM television that, including the inflation adjustment, it would put an additional 125 euros in the pockets of millions of the lowest earners.

It won't weigh on firms' finances, since the increase will come via a higher monthly government top-up of 80 euros for low earners and a 20-euro reduction in payroll charges.

Macron will also do away with payroll taxes on overtime hours, a reversal of a measure taken by the previous Socialist government of which he was a member.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is to present the fine print of Macron's proposals to lawmakers Tuesday, while officials gauge the public reaction to his speech, waiting to see if more protests are called for Saturday.

"Emmanuel Macron has acknowledged social concerns: it certainly won't be enough for the most determined yellow vests, but it may have an impact on public opinion," veteran political analyst Alain Duhamel said.

Labour unions, which have largely been relegated to the sidelines during the anti-government protests, gave a cool reception to Macron's speech, not least his call for firms to pay a tax-free bonus to workers this Christmas -- without making it obligatory.

And Macron excluded the return of a "wealth tax" on high earners he abolished last year, a move which virtually cemented his reputation as "president of the rich," though he hinted that big firms would be tapped to help pay for the higher wages and pensions.

- 'A provocation' -

The former investment banker's ratings have sunk, with a recent poll showing just 23 percent approved his actions.

"I know that I have hurt some of you with my statements," Macron said, alluding to comments seen as dismissive of the plight of many in rural and small-town France.

In one instance, he told an unemployed gardener that all he had to do to find work was to "cross the street" where restaurants, cafes or construction firms were hiring.

The yellow vest movement, meanwhile, enjoys broad public support of 70 to 80 percent according to polls, and some protesters have already vowed to hold a fifth straight Saturday of protests in the capital this weekend.

"It's just window dressing for the media, some trivial measures, it almost seems like a provocation," said Thierry, a 55-year-old bicycle mechanic at a roundabout blockade in the southern town of Le Boulou, after Macron's speech.