French government postpones fuel-tax hikes in face of 'yellow vest' protests

France's prime minister has suspended planned increases to fuel taxes for six months in response to weeks of sometimes violent protests, the first major U-turn by President Emmanuel Macron's administration after 18 months in office.

Demonstrators see president’s policies as favouring the rich and doing nothing to help the poor

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, right, leaves the National Assembly in Paris on Tuesday after announcing the suspension of a planned hike in fuel taxes. (ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

France's prime minister on Tuesday suspended planned increases to fuel taxes for six months in response to weeks of sometimes violent protests, the first major U-turn by President Emmanuel Macron's administration after 18 months in office.

In announcing the decision, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said anyone would have "to be deaf or blind" not to see or hear the anger on the streets over a policy that Macron has defended as critical to fighting climate change.

"The French who have donned yellow vests want taxes to drop, and work to pay. That's also what we want. If I didn't manage to explain it, if the ruling majority didn't manage to convince the French, then something must change," Philippe said in a TV address.

As well as a six-month delay in introducing the carbon tax increases, Philippe said the period would be used to discuss other measures to help the working poor who rely on vehicles to get to work and go to the shops.

A protester wearing a yellow vest, the symbol of French drivers' protest against higher diesel fuel prices, holds a flag near burning debris near the A2 Paris-Brussels Motorway, in Fontaine-Notre-Dame, France, on Tuesday. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

Earlier officials had hinted at possible increases to the minimum wage, but Philippe did not make any such commitment.

He warned citizens, however, that they could not expect better public services and to pay lower taxes, and that therefore compromises needed to be made on both sides.

'We will not settle for a crumb'

But protesters wearing their signature fluorescent yellow vests continued to block several fuel depots. In the southern city of Marseille, students clashed with police outside a high school. And on a highway near the southern city of Aubagne, protesters took over a toll booth to let vehicles pass for free. They put up a sign by the side of the road reading "Macron dictator."

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, shakes hands with a firefighter during a visit in the streets of Paris on Sunday. (Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images)

"It's a first step, but we will not settle for a crumb," said Benjamin Cauchy, a protest leader.

The so-called "yellow vest" movement, which started on Nov. 17 as a social-media protest group named for the high-visibility jackets all motorists in France must have in their cars, has focused on denouncing a squeeze on household spending brought about by Macron's taxes on fuel.

However, over the past three weeks, the protests have evolved into a wider anti-Macron uprising, with many criticizing the president for pursuing policies they say favour the rich and do nothing to help the poor, and some violent fringe groups calling for the president to go.

More than 100 people were injured in the French capital and 412 arrested over the weekend in Paris, with dozens of cars torched. Shops were looted and cars torched in plush neighbourhoods around the famed ​Champs-Elysées Avenue.

Ambulance drivers hold smoke bombs in the colours of the French flag during a demonstration at the Place de la Concorde in Paris on Monday. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

The Arc de Triomphe, which is home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and was visited by world leaders last month to mark the centenary of the end of World War I, was sprayed with graffiti and vandalized inside.

"This violence must end," Philippe said.

He also announced that electricity and natural gas prices will be frozen until May in a move aimed at improving spending power.

Change for France?

Macron, a 40-year-old former investment banker and economy minister, came to office in mid-2017 promising to overhaul the French economy, revitalize growth and draw foreign investment by making the nation a more attractive place to do business.

In the process he earned the tag "president of the rich" for seeming to do more to court big business and ease the tax burden on the wealthy. Discontent has steadily risen among blue-collar workers and others who feel he represents an urban "elite."

A police officer stands in front of a car set on fire by students protesting against French government reforms on Monday in the north of Paris's suburb of Aubervilliers. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

For Macron, who is sharply down in the polls and struggling to regain the initiative, a further risk is how opposition parties will leverage the anger and the decision to shift course.

Ahead of European Parliament elections next May, support for the far-right under Marine Le Pen and the far-left of Jean-Luc Melenchon has been rising. Macron has cast those elections as a battle between his "progressive" ideas and what he sees as their promotion of nationalist or anti-EU agendas.

Le Pen was quick to point out that the six-month postponement of the fuel-tax increases took the decision beyond the European elections.

With files from The Associated Press