French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday tried to take the heat out of mass anti-government demonstrations, as a spokesman for the movement said there would be another show of strength on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Saturday.
Macron said he had heard the anger expressed by the protests and would seek to bolster people’s spending power but refused to change course from trying to make France greener.
The 40-year-old centrist acknowledged that many struggling households felt penalised by years of rising fuel taxes, the spark for road blockades and demonstrations over the past 10 days.
Macron offered minor concessions, saying he would propose a mechanism to adjust the tax increases if prices were also being pushed up by rising oil prices internationally – as they have been for much of this year.
And he called for a three-month national consultation to draw up a roadmap for accelerating France’s transition away from fossil fuels, which he insisted would remain 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 presidential palace in Paris.
In an hour-long speech, Macron repeated several times that he had understood the anger expressed by hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets wearing high-visibility yellow jackets this month.
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.
Environment Minister Francois de Rugy later met members of the movement.
After the meeting, one of its spokesmen, Eric Drouet, said protesters would return to the Champs-Elysees on Saturday just as they did last week.
‘The French are not at all convinced’ by Macron’s announcements, he said at the end of the talks, calling also for a new meeting with ‘the government’s spokesperson or the prime minister’.
‘There will be a gathering like last Saturday on the Champs-Elysees. The wish of all the yellow vests is to continue every Saturday like that on the Champs-Elysees,’ he added.
‘Who’s going to pay?’
But beyond fuel taxes – set to increase again in January – some of the most frequent complaints from the ‘yellow vests’ is Macron’s perceived elitism and his pro-business policies.
‘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,’ Macron said.
‘I believe very profoundly that we can transform this anger into the solution.’
Acknowledging that protesters worry about surviving ‘the end of the month’ in contrast to his government’s desire to stave off ‘the end of the world’, he promised: ‘We are going to deal with both.’
Last Saturday’s protests saw barricades and tear gas on the Champs-Elysees.
Many participants have called for Macron to reimpose a wealth tax on high earners, repealed after the former investment banker took office last year.
‘Macron stays his course, so do we!’ a group of around 50 protesters chanted Tuesday at a roundabout in Tregueux, western France.
‘He’s found a solution for saving the environment and being more energy efficient, but who’s going to pay for it? Us, like always,’ said Benoit Julou, a 44-year-old real estate agent at the protest.
Cutting down on nuclear
Macron also used the speech on France’s energy transition to announce a programme for reducing France’s reliance on nuclear power.
The government will shut down 14 of France’s 58 nuclear reactors 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.
Macron said Fessenheim, which came online in 1977 and is still operating despite the plant’s programmed 40-year lifespan, would now close in mid-2020.
‘Reducing the role of nuclear energy does not mean renouncing it,’ Macron said, not least because it will help France meet its carbon emission targets as part of the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord.
France relies on nuclear power for 72 percent of its electricity needs. The government wants to reduce this to 50 percent by 2035 by developing more renewable energy sources.
Macron said wind power electricity output would triple by 2030, and solar output would increase fivefold, helped by a boost for renewable energy development to seven to eight billion euros a year from five billion currently.
He also announced that France would close its remaining four coal-fired power plants by 2022 as part of anti-pollution efforts.