President Emmanuel Macron warned his cabinet on Monday that violent protests against diesel tax hikes in France risked unnerving foreigners and pressed his government to respond to the concerns of voters.
Police on Saturday fired tear gas and water cannons at thousands of protesters who trashed restaurants and shop-fronts and set wheelie bins ablaze on the upmarket Champs Elysees in Paris, a magnet for tourists.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of these images of the Champs-Elysees (…) with battle scenes that were broadcast by the media in France and abroad,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told a news briefing, recounting the president’s words.
The demonstrations, now in their second week, have seen the “yellow vests” protesters block roads across the country, impeding access to some fuel depots, out-of-town shopping malls and factories.
“Behind this anger there is obviously something deeper and which we must answer, because this anger, these anxieties have existed for a long time,” Griveaux added.
The social unrest is a quandary for a president who casts himself as a champion of the fight against climate change but is battling tumbling popularity ratings and voter criticism that he is out of touch with life outside France’s major cities.
Macron refuses to reverse the diesel tax increases, conscious he needs the support of Green Party members as he seeks to build a broad alliance ahead of next year’s European elections, as well as the tax revenues the levy generates.
However, the former investment banker has in past days shown a growing willingness to ensure financial support for low-income motorists, at a time many households complain his economic reforms have eroded their spending power.