PARIS (Reuters) – Thousands of French protesters hit out at higher fuel taxes and President Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies in demonstrations across motorways on Saturday, sparking major logjams and several accidents, including a fatality at one road blockade.
Dozens of people were also injured, as drivers tried to get around stoppages, after protesters in a grassroots protest movement dubbed the “yellow vests” took to motorway sliproads, tunnel entrances or airport access roads.
The demonstrations, coordinated on social media, were born out of a backlash against higher fuel prices, and echo complaints over a perceived squeeze in spending power and mounting dissatisfaction with Macron, who some view as out of touch with ordinary people.
At a blockade in the southeastern department of Savoie, a driver panicked when protesters surrounded her car and she accelerated, hitting and killing a female demonstrator, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said.
At least 106 people were injured across the country, including five seriously, according to the interior ministry, which by mid-afternoon estimated that around 244,000 demonstrators were taking part in Saturday’s protests.
Thirty-eight people were taken into custody.
Police used tear gas to clear the entrance to a tunnel under the Mont-Blanc mountain in the Alps, as well as to try and push back demonstrators gathering near the Elysee Palace in Paris and in the city center of Lyon.
Protesters chanted “Macron, resign” and some sported slogans such as “give us back our purchasing power” on the back of the yellow high-visibility vests, which have come to symbolize the movement.
“There are just too many taxes in France,” said Veronique Lestrade, a demonstrator on the outskirts of Paris, who said her family was struggling to make ends meet.
In 18 months in power, Macron has seen off trade unions and street demonstrations as he loosened labor laws and overhauled the heavily indebted state rail operator SNCF in a bid to reboot the economy.
Derided by political opponents as “the president of the rich” for measures such as the end of a wealth tax, Macron’s popularity has dwindled to new lows of 21 percent.
Tax hikes on fuel and tobacco as well as an increase to a social welfare levy before other tax cuts came into force have left some voters feeling squeezed.
The diesel tax increases, designed to encourage drivers to switch to more environmentally-friendly cars, were approved in late 2017 but began to bite when oil prices surged in October, angering some in the provinces who rely on their cars to get to work.
Ministers announced funds last Wednesday to help motorists on the lowest incomes, even if Macron is standing firm on his fuel policy.
Prices have eased this month, although protesters on Saturday had other complaints too, as Macron’s next test at the ballot box in European parliamentary elections in May 2019 looms.
“I happily voted for Macron in 2017, but he’s really making fun of us,” said Dominique Jouvert, 63, a retired civil servant demonstrating in Lyon’s city center. “There’s no discussion to be had with him, no dialogue, he’s arrogant.
“What’s certain is that I won’t vote for him again.”
Reporting by Sarah White, Caroline Pailliez, Yves Clarisse, Catherine Lagrange, Reuters TV; Editing by Gareth Jones and Louise Heavens