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Eye on France: Is the Yellow Vest protest over?

media Yellow Vests protesting last weekend © Pauline Gleize

Yesterday, the French government reacted to the "yellow vest" protest movement by postponing for six months fuel taxes which were due to come into force in January. There's been a wide range of reactions, both among protestors themselves and within the political establishment. What are the Paris newspapers saying about the latest twist in the yellow vest saga?

The general tone in the press is one of confusion. The government has certainly taken a step backwards.

The January hikes in fuel prices, which were intended to finance the green revolution and save the planet, have been put back by six months. But that doesn't mean the protestors are going to roll up their banners and go home.

This popular movement has grown since the original uprising against carbon tax. It seems that there are now almost as many demands for change as there are individual wearers of yellow vests. In that sense, the Voice of the North newspaper may have got it right with a front page headline reading "Too Little, Too Late".

By taking so long to take the steam out of this movement, the president and his prime minister have allowed the monster to grow extra heads and now every Tom, Richard and Henriette wants his or her bite of the concessions.

It's not clear how many people he can be said to speak for, but one protestor interviewed by Le Monde insists that, despite yesterday's concessions, he will return to the capital on Saturday, for a fourth day of demonstrations. "It's all going to play out in Paris," he says. "It's almost an obligation to make the trip."

The front-page verdict

Left-leaning Libération has a front-page picture of a very grim looking Emmanuel Macron with his less-than-cheerful prime minister in the background. The headline reads “Going backwards”.

Libé is even less kind inside, with the headline “Macron, a normal president,” an ironic reference to his predecessor François Hollande and to the fact that, in France, there’s no beating the street.

Right-wing Le Figaro says the government is rallying round the prime minister in the wake of yesterday’s postponement. He’s going to need all the help he can get.

Business daily Les Echos suggests that the Macron administration may be considering a re-introduction of wealth tax, the abolition of which was one of the key early decisions of President Macron, and a move which earned him the “president of the rich” tag.

Communist L’Humanité assures readers that the government’s efforts to end the crisis have left yellow vest anger intact.

Le Monde says the protestors have rejected official efforts to calm the situation and are determined to maintain their various blockades, and to go ahead with the day of action planned for next Saturday.

Who speaks for the voicless?

The problem with those last two stories, in L’Humanité and Le Monde, is that the two papers base their summaries on the relatively few protestors their journalists have met.

In the case of Le Monde, we’re talking about the 70 activists who’ve been blocking a roundabout outside Gaillon, a town of 7,000 people in northern France.

They are certainly disappointed, calling yesterday’s announcement of the postponement of the fuel tax a diversion, asking what will they do in six months when the cycle of price rises starts all over again.

Some of Gaillon’s 70 stalwarts want a simple end to any form of green tax, others are calling for a lowering of the rate of the general social contribution, for an increase in spending power, for the departure of the French president.

The demands are many and various, and change from one road-block to the next. Indeed, from one road-blocker to the next.

The big question is whether yesterday’s concessions will be sufficient to calm a majority of the disgruntled, or whether the sense that the government has given in will encourage those supporting other demands to continue with their particular crusades.

Le Monde has visited other sites, near Bordeaux, in eastern France, on the outskirts of Paris. Making a total of perhaps 200 individuals and the testimony of no more than a dozen. It’s a major leap from that true, clear but tiny snapshot to a headline announcing that “The yellow vests reject the government’s olive branch.”

Feeding frenzy

The political opposition has no such problems. An occasion like this is too good to miss. Emmanuel Macron has been forced to back down for the first time and his opponents are lining up to dance on his discomfort.

In a remarkable show of cross-party solidarity, the right-wing Republicans, far-right National Rally, the Socialists and the hard-left France Unbowed party have all called, separately, for a clear and simple end to any talk of additional taxes on fuel. So much for the fate of the sweltering planet!

The parliamentary adversaries are unanimous in their denunciation of the six-month deferment of the fuel tax. That time extension, as Marine Le Pen of the National Rally and others have pointed out, will get France safely to the other side of next year’s European elections.

Mélenchon mangles the space-time continuum

On the question of which of the political extremes will profit most from the current social unrest, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the hard left says it will come down to face off between his own people out on the left, and their far away adversaries on the right.

Which all sounds logical enough.

But Jean-Luc then lets his enthusiasm get the better of him, in one phrase creating and condemning a new political movement, what he calls “the extreme centre” which is he says, stuck in “an ideological, personal and historical deadend.”

To say nothing of a contradiction in terms.

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