French President Emmanuel Macron is hoping to quell civil discontent led by the so-called “gilet jaunes” (yellow vests) protesters by promising large tax cuts, higher pensions and civil service reform.
Speaking at a news conference in Paris on Thursday, he said that public order must be restored following months of demonstrations. But despite his apparent olive branch, the French leader also vowed to stay the course with his polarising policies.
The “sometimes violent” nationwide protests have been held every week since November, and were sparked by rises in fuel costs but have “widened to cover a range of grievances over economic inequality”, the BBC reports.
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At the peak of the gilets jaunes unrest - so called because protesters wear fluorescent yellow high-vis jackets - an estimated 285,000 people took to the streets across France.
In his televised addressed, dubbed his “moment of truth” by French media, Macron acknowledged that many French citizens were feeling “anger and impatience for change”, and said he accepted the protesters’ “just demands”.
The country is facing a significant “lack of trust” in the Establishment, he said - an apparent nod to recent opinion polls that show Macron’s approval rating has halved from 60% at his inauguration two years ago to around 30% today.
In a gesture designed to “assuage” the protesters, the president pledged €5bn (£4.3bn) worth of cuts to income tax for those on low or medium incomes, and pension rises for the poorest, CNN reports. And he promised that no more schools or hospitals would be closed during his presidency.
But he also criticised the gilet jaunes demonstrators, saying their campaign had been marred by episodes of anti-Semitic violence, attacks on journalists and homophobia.
Macron insisted that he would not reverse his controversial decision to scrap the country’s wealth tax, a move that helped spark the unrest and earned him the less-than-complimentary nickname of “president of the rich”, says The Guardian.
Instead, he added, he would continue with his project to liberalise the French economy and overhaul its welfare state.
“The transformations that are in progress and the transformations that are essential for our country should not be stopped,” Macron said. “I asked myself, ‘Should we stop everything that was done over the past two years? Did we take a wrong turn?’ I believe quite the opposite.”
One solution to the nation’s problems was for its people to work harder, he argued.
“We must work more,” he said. “France works much less than its neighbours. We need to have a real debate on this.”
According to The Times, a yellow-vest spokesperson has “dismissed his measures as meaningless”, while the opposition Socialist Party said: “Once again, Emmanuel Macron is asking workers to make an effort but at no time is he asking for an effort from people who earn millions.”
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