French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, standing firm against a wave of grassroots protests, said Sunday that fuel tax hikes would remain in place despite nationwide agitation.
“The course we set is good and we will keep it,” Philippe said during an interview on TV station France-2, “It’s not when the wind blows that you change course.”
Nearly 300,000 protesters paralyzed traffic at more than 2,000 strategic sites around France on Saturday in a bid to force the government to lower taxes on diesel fuel and gasoline. Other issues, like buying power, melted into the main demand as the demonstrations unfolded.
A protester was struck and killed Saturday when a panicked driver facing a roadblock in the eastern Savoie region. French press reports Sunday said the driver was charged with manslaughter and released. At last count, at least 409 people had been injured — 14 seriously, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said Sunday on RTL radio.
Holdouts refusing to end the protests continued to slow traffic Sunday. Blockades were counted at 150 scattered locations Sunday, Castaner told RTL radio. Protesters were notably in Rennes, in western France, Avignon, in the south, and Nancy, in the east, where police moved in to clear them.
The situation throughout the night was “agitated,” Castaner said, with “aggressions, fights, knife-slashing” taking place, including among the protesters.
Overall, 157 people were detained for questioning – double the number reported Saturday night.
The upstart movement behind the weekend protests represents middle-class citizens and those with fewer means who rely on their cars to get to work. The protesters called themselves “yellow jackets” after the safety vests French drivers are obliged to keep in their cars for emergencies.
While it was unclear if the weekend’s momentum would continue, the movement is posing a challenge to French President Emmanuel Macron.
“I hear what the French are saying. It’s very clear,” the prime minister said Sunday. “But a government that … zigzags according to the difficulties, what too many past governments have done, that won’t lead France to where it must be.”
Macron wants to close the gap between the price of diesel fuel and gasoline as part of his strategy to wean France off fossil fuels. A “carbon trajectory” calls for continued increases, particularly on diesel.
Philippe said more explaining is needed “and we will do that,” while adhering to the plan. He vowed that results would be in at the end of Macron’s mandate in 2022 – and good for the French.
Taxes on diesel fuel have gone up 7 euro cents (nearly 8 U.S. cents) and are to keep climbing in the coming years, Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne has said. The tax on gasoline is to increase 4 euro cents.
Macron, whose popularity ratings are sliding regularly, has not commented.
“I don’t think silence is the right answer,” said Troyes Mayor Francois Baroin, a former mainstream right minister and senator before the prime minister spoke. The Troyes prefecture was invaded and damaged by protesters on Saturday.
“It’s a very powerful message sent from the depths of France,” he said.