Fresh “Yellow Vests” violence erupts in Paris despite Macron’s economic reforms

Xinhua News Agency | Nov 16, 2019 at 4:21 PM

by Sonia Ounissi

PARIS, Nov. 16 (Xinhua) -- Violence erupted Saturday in Paris where Yellow Vests movement staged a fresh action to mark its first anniversary amid continued social unrest over President Emmanuel Macron's economic reforms.

Tear gas clouds rose into the air near Porte d'Italie in southern Paris where first clashes between police and protestors broke out early in the morning after a few hundred demonstrators set on fire barricades and threw projectiles at police officers.

Police responded with tear gas to disperse the crowd. It also intervened to clear the Peripherique ring which "Yellow Vest" tried to occupy.

Tension flared further after a group of masked youth tried to vandalize a shopping center. They overturned many vehicles and torched several bins in Place d'Italie. Tear gas and stun grenades had been used to push back the crowd.

By 15:00 local time (14:00 GMT), 61 individuals were arrested and more than 1,400 preventive checks had been carried out, according to Paris prefecture.

Authorities have banned protests in the Champs Elysees avenue, the Arc de Triomphe monument, and near the National Assembly which had been the flashpoints of clashes and vandalism in last year's social unrest.

Amid continued social uproar over the government's economic and fiscal roadmap which protestors say favor the rich, "Yellow Vests" are planning 270 rallies and blockades for this weekend.

"I think 'Yellow Vest' demonstrators will mobilize massively to show that anger is still there. It is bigger today than it was a year ago because (President) Emmanuel Macron did not answer our demands...to restore fiscal justice," Francois Boulo, the movement's representative in Rouen in northwest France told BFMTV news channel.

On Nov. 17, 2018, the movement, which got its name from the high visibility vests drivers keep in their cars, started as a campaign against an increase in diesel's price, most commonly used car fuel in France, that Macron said is necessary to combat climate change.

It had been morphed into social rebellion with sometimes violent action causing weekly chaos in French cities, notably in Paris.

A year on, and despite billion-euro sweeteners Macron has already offered to defuse the tension, "many thousands of people" are set to participate in the 53rd act, suggesting that the gloom in the Elysee Palace is not over at a time when the contested pro-market reforms start to bear fruit.

UPBEAT ECONOMIC OUTLOOK

When Macron, the former investment banker, came to power on May 14, 2017, he promised to get the country out of weak growth, bring down rampant jobless rate and create more wealth.

Half-way into his five year-term, economic activities in the eurozone's second main powerhouse hold up better than its European neighbours and unemployment is down.

"The French economy is doing better. More work needed to be done but the government's economic policy already gives results," tweeted on Friday Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire.

Macron had cut taxes on companies and investors and eased labor regulations to make hiring and firing easier to encourage recruitment. As a result, 540,000 new jobs have been created since 2017, while unemployment rate hits 10-year low to 8.6 percent, government's data showed.

Climate has changed enough in two years to make France a top destination for foreign investment in Europe, according to Ernst & Young consulting firm.

Amid high concerns about the international trade dispute and Brexit impact, French economy, defying slowdown forecast, rose by 0.3 percent in the third quarter of 2019 thanks to boosted domestic demand, data from national statistics institute Insee showed.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) predicted in its last interim outlook that French economy would expand by 1.3 percent this year, above 1.1-percent expected across the broader eurozone thanks to "significant reform agenda."

It said that if fully implemented Macron's reforms could boost GDP per capita by 3.2 percent at a 10-year horizon and would mostly benefit middle- and lower-income households in the medium term.

The rosy economic indicators seemed to have boosted Macron's ambition to modernize the country and keep the economic momentum, but at the same time, his reform drive ignited domestic discontent.

HEADWIND AHEAD

Elected on a ticket to help businesses, the French president had been changing labor code, injecting dynamism into public services and institutions and reforming rail sector and education system, areas where he was facing fierce opposition that drew thousands to the country's streets in addition to strikes.

Up next on his agenda: reforming pension system, improving public healthcare service and accelerating energy transition. But continued social unrest and accusations that he was ignoring workers, and being out of reach, likely to undermine his next reform push.

"I'm here to continue to transform the country, to make it progress. I do not want to move forward in division but not at the price of inaction," said Macron on Thursday when about 10,000 hospital workers took the streets in Paris to denounce low pay and poor working conditions in over-capacity emergency rooms.

Earlier this week, students have also demonstrated across France to protest over living conditions after a destitute young student set himself on fire.

Yet trade union-led calls for mass strikes on Dec. 5 against the government's proposal to change pension regime suggested that the French top official has to further roll his sleeves up to defuse public anger.

"There are significant results on employment, honorable on growth...Certainly Emmanuel Macron has changed things," Alain Duhamel, a political commentator said.

"The question now is to know how far social consent will be. And, if he can continue the dynamic and sometimes bumpy change or it will be blocked by a powerful refusal," he wrote in the weekly newspaper Liberation.