PARIS – Embattled French President Emmanuel Macron announced a series of strong financial measures Monday in a bid to defuse the “yellow vest” protests which have roiled the country.
In a 15-minute televised speech from the Elysee Palace, a sombre-looking president struck a more humble tone than usual as he sought to address criticism of his style of leadership.
“I know that I have hurt some of you with my statements,” he said.
He stressed, however, that the protests by mostly low-income people in small town or rural France were the result of long-term problems.
“Their distress doesn’t date from yesterday. We have ended up getting used to it,” he said.
“These are forty years of malaise that have come to the surface.”
Among the measures Macron announced to address the crisis was a €100 ($113 dollar) monthly increase in the minimum wage as of next year, for which businesses would not have to foot the bill.
The minimum wage was set at €1,498 per month pre-tax in 2018 and €1,185 after tax.
Macron’s government had previously suggested that any increase in the minimum wage would destroy jobs rather than help create them.
But the protests, which have seen rioting in Paris and other cities and taken a heavy financial toll, are the biggest challenge for Macron since the former investment banker came to power in May 2017 promising to revitalise the economy.
Since then his popularity has fallen with critics saying he favours the rich and alienates people struggling in rural and small-town France.
Macron also announced he would roll back most of an unpopular increase in taxes on pensioners which was introduced by his government.
And he called on all businesses “that can afford it” to give employees a one-off “end of year bonus” which would then be tax free.
In another move to appease the protesters’ anger, Macron said he would do away with all wage taxes on overtime work, a measure first introduced under former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy but later reversed under his socialist successor Francois Hollande because it was deemed too expensive.
Macron, who has been in power for the past 18 months, earlier Monday held four hours of crisis talks with government ministers, parliamentary leaders, business and labour representatives and regional officials.
Macron had vowed that unlike his predecessors he would not be swayed by street protests.
But in an initial attempt to quell the revolt, the government agreed last week to cancel a planned increase in anti-pollution fuel taxes — the spark behind the “yellow vest” protests in car-dependent rural and suburban France.
But the move was seen as too little, too late by the protesters, who held a fourth round of demonstrations on Saturday to press for further concessions on reducing inequality.
The three-week-long campaign of nationwide road blockades and weekend protests in Paris and other cities, which degenerated into destruction and looting, have taken a toll on the French economy.
The central bank on Monday halved its fourth-quarter growth forecast to just 0.2 percent from 0.4 percent — far below the 0.8 percent growth needed to meet the government’s full-year target of 1.7 percent.
Nationwide an estimated 136,000 people turned out for the protests at the weekend — the same number as a week earlier.
Since the start of the protests, over 4,500 people have been detained by police in France, of whom 1,700 last Saturday, police said.