PARIS (Reuters) - France’s prime minister held talks with opposition party leaders on Monday as President Emmanuel Macron sought a way to defuse nationwide protests over high living costs that led to widespread rioting and vandalism in Paris at the weekend.
The “yellow vest” revolt caught Macron unawares when it erupted on Nov. 17 and poses a formidable challenge to the 40-year-old as he tries to counter a plunge in popularity over his economic reforms, which are seen as favoring the wealthy.
Riot police were overrun on Saturday as protesters wrought havoc in Paris’s fanciest neighborhoods, torching dozens of cars, looting boutiques and smashing up luxury private homes and cafes in the worst disturbances the capital has seen since 1968.
On Monday, protesters were blocking access to 11 fuel depots belonging to the oil company Total, and 75 of its filling stations had run dry, a company spokesman said.
The “yellow vest” movement, whose supporters cut across age, job profile and geographical region, began online as an impromptu rebellion against higher fuel prices but has morphed into a broader outpouring of anger over the squeeze that living costs are putting on middle-class household budgets.
The movement, whose members span the political spectrum and include radical fringe elements, has no clear leadership, making talks all the more complicated for the government.
Their core demand is a freeze on further planned fuel tax increases — the next is due in January — and measures to help bolster spending power. But they have also called for Macron to go, and many talk up the idea of revolution.
The government is struggling for a way to engage.
“Making a small gesture and then sweeping the problem under the carpet, just as has always been done for the last 30 years, does nothing to solve the deeper, structural problems,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told France Inter radio.
“It will just start over six months down the line ... That wouldn’t be respectful of anyone.”
Public support for the “yellow vests” remains high, with seven in 10 people backing their protest, a Harris Interactive opinion poll conducted after Saturday’s unrest suggested.
Macron says the increased fuel taxes are part of his effort to combat climate change, wanting to persuade French drivers to exchange diesel-fuelled cars for less polluting models. He said on Saturday he would not deviate from his policy goals.
As governments from around the world began a two-week conference in Poland to try to pin down measures to avert the most damaging consequences of global warming, the protests highlighted how costly some of those actions are likely to be.
Christophe Chalencon, one of around eight semi-official spokespeople for the “yellow vests”, told BFM TV he would not enter talks only to “negotiate over peanuts”.
Laurent Wauquiez, head of the biggest opposition party, the centre-right Les Republicains, has called for a referendum on Macron’s energy transition plan. Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the hard-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), and Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right, have called for parliament to be dissolved and snap elections held.
The hitherto uncompromising response of Macron, a former investment banker, has only reinforced a view among the hard-pressed middle-class and blue-collar workers that he is part of an urban elite contemptuous of their world.
The anti-establishment anger spurring the yellow vests on could spell trouble for Macron in next year’s European elections. These are traditionally fertile ground for the far-right and Le Pen already leads surveys of voting intentions.
Saturday’s unrest was the worst in central Paris since a student uprising five decades ago. At times, riot police appeared overwhelmed. The Arc de Triomphe, a unifiying national monument that houses the tomb of the unknown soldier, was defaced, and a bust of national symbol Marianne was smashed.
Reporting by Richard Lough and Simon Carraud; Editing by Luke Baker and Kevin Liffey