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A time for reckoning

  • Published at 12:02 am May 16th, 2019
French President
Photo: REUTERS

Fuel tax and pension concerns are hitting France hard

From out of nowhere, Emmanuel Macron came in, captured the people’s thoughts and became the French president.

A couple of years later, he is having to face up to sustained protests -- the so-called Yellow Vests -- opposing fuel taxes and general livelihood cost concerns. 

But what Macron is doing is very different from the usual.

In a series of town halls, he is trying to understand the root concerns as well as explain his reform programs.

There are many in the Yellow Vest movement calling him to go, that the demands are made without focusing on reality. 

France’s economy is fragile and cannot, as of now, give in to pushing Euros back into consumer pockets without revenue coming from somewhere. 

It is the latest of a right-wing movement sweeping Europe whereby people would rather the state utilize its finances within the country than spend internationally.

The two major sticking points relate to fuel taxes and pensions, and Macron is firm that the French must work longer hours and pay taxes that can be used for pensioners.

The French people are unwilling to work longer and harder, and that’s where the dilemma is. 

Macron came to power promising revision of working hours, even if it meant taking on the strong unions. He did just that in pushing the reforms through parliament where his new party scored major gains. 

But it was the electorate that didn’t look at his proposals long and hard enough to realize there would be distress associated with an economic turnaround. Instead, they looked towards reduced cost while staying in the European Union, and frugality in government expenditure. 

They are also unhappy with changes to the way of life they are used to, including the freedom to drive away their worries.

Hence, the fuel tax is hitting them hard. The demands for more pay is a natural corollary as the Yellow Vests would like to say. 

Their view is that Macron promised more wealth to the general public but two odd years on from his famous win, it has been more of belt-tightening than anything more.

Europe has seen more protests akin to the Yellow Vest campaign, except that this has now increased to nearly six months of weekend protests.

Greece, the much-troubled and debt-ridden country, is one where protests have gone violent. 

The French protests, thankfully, though incendiary at times, have not been met with aggressiveness by law enforcers. Macron has been the only leader who has begun town halls, and accepting some of the demands such as tax cuts. 

He has so far been unwilling to negotiate his main reform agenda, with longer working hours and days being on top of the list. But the fact that he is holding the talks suggests that he, for one, wants to listen and gauge the distance created between him and the electorate.

That is something to learn from for other countries, including us. 

Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.

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