French Gov’t Tries to Defuse Unrest by Suspending Carbon Tax, But Criticism Persists

By Fayçal Benhassain | December 4, 2018 | 10:26 PM EST

Protesters wearing masks and yellow jackets protest against rising fuel prices on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on November 24, 2018. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

(Update: Bowing to the protestors, French President Emmanuel Macron has dropped the controversial fuel tax rise from his 2019 budget.)

Paris ( – French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Tuesday announced a six-month moratorium on carbon taxes which are central to the government’s climate change campaign – but helped to trigger the most serious street protests the country has witnessed in years.

Philippe also said electricity and gas rates would not be increased over winter, and he suspended for six months a new requirement for vehicles to undergo carbon emission inspections.

“No tax is worth jeopardizing the unity of the nation,” he said in a televised address designed to stop the political turmoil.

Philippe said the fuel tax had been “one of the most direct causes of the mobilization” of the so-called Yellow Vest protestors, named for their high-visibility jackets.

But, he insisted, the government would not change its political program, especially its environmental transition policy.

When running for office, President Emmanuel Macron pledged to tackle climate change and became one of the cause’s most prominent advocates. The aim of the carbon tax, which had been due to take effect from January, was to limit the use of polluting vehicles and prompt their replacement with electric cars as soon as possible.

Most political parties – and leaders of the Yellow Vests – have criticized the government’s response, although for different reasons.

Both the right-wing National Rally and the leftist movement Rebellious France called for the cancellation of all taxes, and other political leaders said Philippe's measures do not go far enough

Segolène Royale, former socialist minister of ecology, said although she was in favor of a global strategy to fight global warming, the government’s moratorium was better late than never.

“This decision should have been taken from the beginning, as soon as the conflict emerged, which we felt was going to be very, very hard because we saw the rage, the exasperation, particularly of the pensioners,” she said.

But the Green Party regretted Philippe decision, saying the environment has been turned into a “scapegoat.”

Nicolas Hulot, a former ecology minister, said he worried the importance of the environment would be downgraded.

“At the same time as we raise the price of carbon, we must provide tools in the territories to enable every citizen to save money and reduce their [fuel] consumption sustainably,” he said.

France Nature Environment, a federation of green associations, called the moratorium a “serious error – a regression that sacrifices ecology without responding to social concerns.”

A Bordeaux-based protest movement spokesman said the government’s move aimed to calm the situation but offered only a temporary fix, since Philippe said the carbon tax will not be eliminated altogether.

Laetitia Dewalle, spokeswoman for a Yellow Vests group in a region near Paris, pointed to protestors’ broader demands, including measures to increase people’s purchasing power and an end to a tax cut that came into effect last January which left-wingers say only benefits the wealthy.

Recent weeks have seen demonstrators block roads, oil depots and ports, and in Paris last weekend police used teargas to try to stop elements who used the opportunity to loot stores and who clashed with peaceful protestors.

Despite Philippe’s concession, more protests are planned for Saturday.

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