France fuel protests: Macron drives ahead amid unrest

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Masked protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers" protest against higher fuel prices, take part in a demonstration on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, France, November 24, 2018.Image source, Reuters
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Protests in Paris at the weekend attracted thousands

Embattled French President Emmanuel Macron has said he will not abandon a controversial fuel tax, as he set out France's future energy strategy.

The so-called yellow vests protests have seen thousands take to the streets across France over fuel prices.

But Mr Macron struck a conciliatory tone, saying he was open to ideas and revising how the fuel tax was applied.

He also announced that France would close all coal power stations by 2022, along with a number of nuclear plants.

In his speech on Tuesday, Mr Macron said: "I am not confusing the rioters with citizens who want to convey a message.

"I sympathise with my fellow citizens, but I will not give in to violence."

He said "you cannot be pro-environment on Monday and then when Tuesday comes be against rising fuel prices".

But in a concession, he said the controversial tax could be adjusted when fuel prices soared to ease the burden on motorists.

He pointed to decades of French policy encouraging citizens to move farther from cities and travel by road.

"We pushed them into this situation… they are the victims of this situation, they have not created it," he said.

"We should listen to the social alarm and protests, but there is also an environmental alarm."

He acknowledged that many citizens felt the policy was being imposed on them without consultation. After his speech, French broadcaster BFMTV reported that the ecology minister would meet with representatives from the yellow vests movement later on Tuesday.

Image source, Reuters
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Mr Macron's approval ratings have dropped sharply this year

France is heavily dependent on nuclear power, which Mr Macron pledged to reduce to 50% of the national energy mix by 2035 by closing 14 of the country's 58 reactors. None, however, will be closed before 2022 with the exception of Fessenheim on the German border.

That is on top of the closure of all four of France's remaining coal-fired power plants and investment of billions of euros into renewable energy.

Mr Macron's approval rating has fallen steadily in recent months, with his deeply unpopular fuel tax increase adding to his political woes.

The gilets jaunes rallies were originally about fuel tax increases. Protesters donned the yellow vest required to be carried in every vehicle by law and blocked roads, causing widespread traffic jams.

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Tear gas and water cannon fired on fuel price protesters by Paris police

But the protests have now spread to encompass rising anger at high taxes and living costs, and span the entire political spectrum - even the far right, which the government blamed for violence in Paris at the weekend.

Those protests saw the famous Champs-Elysées packed with 5,000 people with thousands more spread across the rest of the capital.

Tear gas and a water cannon were used to disperse crowds after barricades were erected on the capital's streets and a small number of protesters tried to break a security cordon.

Most demonstrators have remained peaceful. But one person died during the protests when they were struck by a panicked driver. A few days later, a motorcyclist was also killed when they were hit by a van making a sudden turn in the traffic chaos.

But Mr Macron is also facing opposition from the political class.

On Tuesday, 12 of France's 13 regional leaders called on Mr Macron to reconsider the fuel tax.

In the letter, published in French newspaper L'Opinion, the regional presidents called for a moratorium on the tax, writing that it would be a "serious mistake" to characterise the widespread protests as an extremist movement.

Instead, they wrote, it was indicative of widespread anger of citizens forced to live further and further from their place of work and spend more on travel.

The collected presidents also added that they were not against environmental taxes, but rather in favour of taking the time to improve the proposals.

After his Tuesday speech, Mr Macron's political opponents decried what they described as a lack of action.

Far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen said the president's words were "devoid of any solutions", and the only thing he had convinced her of was the need for change.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the leftist France Unbowed group labelled the speech "an hour of noise" without any answers, while Socialist Olivier Faure wrote that the president "says that he hears [the complaints], but does not understand".