French President Emmanuel Macron is under increasing pressure over rising fuel prices in France, where motorists are threatening to block roads in a nationwide protest later this month.
But he has insisted that taxes on petrol and diesel must increase, to encourage the development of greener forms of transport.
The protest movement has been dubbed “yellow vests” after the garments French drivers have to carry in case of breakdowns. It has developed on social media in anger at rising prices, and now plans to block roads across France on November 17.
One poll has suggested that the planned protest is backed by 78% of French people.
In 2014, a protest by drivers, largely based in western France and known as the “bonnets rouges” (red hats), succeeded in derailing a planned eco-tax.
The price of diesel has increased by 23% in a year, petrol by 15%. Both cost over €1.50 a litre, among the highest in Europe.
The French government says the price rises are mainly due to increasing global oil prices. But there is particular anger in France over fuel taxes.
These have been increasing progressively since 2014, and plans are afoot for another hike in January: diesel is due to be taxed by another 6.5 cents per litre, petrol by 2.9 cents per litre.
The government’s transport policy is for an “ecological transition” over the long term towards more environmentally-friendly vehicles.
But many French people argue they have no choice but to use their cars, and cannot afford expensive alternatives. They often live in rural or suburban urban areas and run on tight budgets.
‘Better a tax on fuel than on work’
Macron again defended the policy on French radio on Tuesday morning, telling Europe he preferred a tax on fuel to a tax on work.
However, he acknowledged that cars were a fact of daily life for many people, saying there was a need for measures to help people make the transition. The president agreed that a tax relief scheme in northern France — giving financial help for commuters who drive 30 kilometres or more to work — should be extended to the whole country.
The president has also said he understands people’s anger over diesel, a fuel whose use was encouraged by the authorities not so long ago.
The issue has aroused passions in France. A woman from Brittany posted a video on Facebook that went viral, accusing Macron of attacking car users. French Environment Minister Emmanuelle Wargon tweeted a reply refuting her arguments and defending the government’s policy.
Meanwhile, in another Facebook post, a man listed environmental and other threats facing the world before telling protesters — in slightly less polite terms — to “stuff your 17 November”.
Out of touch — or going green?
The hostility towards the French president over fuel taxes echoes a general feeling that Macron — whose popularity has been on the slide, according to opinion polls — is out of touch with ordinary people.
His spokesman has been taken to task over a comment attacking an opposition leader but which appeared condescending to diesel users.
Macron himself complained in an interview published in French newspapers that “the same people who grumble about rising fuel prices also demand that we fight air pollution because their children are getting sick”.
The president adopted a more conciliatory tone in his radio interview on Tuesday. But on the overall fuel tax policy, he and his ministers are sticking to their guns.