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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

French government stands tough against violent protesters

Two weeks of 'yellow vest' protests dominate meeting of Emmanuel Macron's government

French policemen patrol the Champs Elysees on November 25, 2018, a day after violent protests on the famous avenue. AP Photo
French policemen patrol the Champs Elysees on November 25, 2018, a day after violent protests on the famous avenue. AP Photo

French President Emmanuel Macron's government vowed on Monday to take an "uncompromising" stance toward troublemakers who used protests over rising fuel taxes to damage businesses and clash with police.

Pressure is mounting on Mr Macron after a second weekend of sometimes violent demonstrations by angry drivers — including in the heart of Paris. He promised to explain on Tuesday his plans for weaning France off fossil fuels via small tax hikes that are at the heart of the protests.

The protests are a major challenge for Mr Macron, drawing disparate demonstrators with no clear leader or mission but with a shared anger at his perceived elitism.

Scattered actions continued on Monday as drivers blocked roads from the Pyrenees to Brittany. Tense clashes on Saturday reached Paris' high-end Champs Elysees, with store windows smashed and police firing volleys of tear gas and chasing troublemakers through streets filled with smoke from flares and bonfires.

The government unveiled on Monday a planned bill to invest €13.4 billion (Dh56bn) by 2022 to develop the rail network, car-pooling, electric cars and unmanned shuttles.

The transportation minister, Elisabeth Borne, said the protesters' anger was the consequence of "decades of abandonment of [rural] territories".

''We're not going to solve these difficulties just in one moment," she said.

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The protests dominated a cabinet meeting Monday, notably the question of how to "respect the anger", according to government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux. "At the same time, we must be uncompromising in the face of those who want to do damage."

He warned that images of Saturday's violence on the Champs Elysees could hurt France's reputation abroad — and the foreign investment that Mr Macron has tried to lure back to the French economy.

A local protest leader in Toulouse, Benjamin Cauchy, said Monday that the movement was at a turning point and the next step would hinge on what Mr Macron had to say.

Mr Cauchy said protesters should respect the media, after journalists were attacked, chased or threatened while covering Saturday's events.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire was to meet on Monday with businesses hit by the protests on the Champs-Elysees and elsewhere.

Influential employers' lobby Medef slammed the troublemakers and urged the government to help businesses hurt by the protests, notably in the tourism and retail sectors. In a statement released Monday, Medef asked the government to immediately activate its so-called "economic continuity unit", used in crises, which allows for exceptional tax breaks or other aid for struggling businesses.

Paris police said 27 people were facing court for Saturday's violence in the capital, while 20 others arrested over the weekend were released.

Two people were killed and hundreds injured in accidents stemming from the protests since they kicked off November 17, and hundreds of protesters and police have been injured.