Macron scraps fuel tax increase as panicked Elysée warns of thousands of yellow vest protesters coming to 'smash and kill''

Henry Samuel
A protester wearing a yellow vest, the symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher diesel fuel prices, occupies with comrades a roundabout in Somain - REUTERS

President Emmanuel Macron of France is to totally scrap fuel tax rises that sparked three weeks of unrest and the worst riots seen in Paris for half a century, as the Elysée last night warned that “several thousand” hardened protesters were bent on descending on Paris on Saturday “to smash and kill”.

However, in a decision that risked further fuelling the “yellow vest” revolt, Mr Macron ruled out reversing a landmark decision to scrap a wealth tax that has seen him dubbed by critics “the president of the rich”.

In a sign of rising panic at the pinnacle of the French state, the presidency issued a hasty evening announcement that the government would  scrap a “green tax” on diesel and petrol due to be imposed in the 2019 budget.

The move came just 24 hours after Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, said the tax rise would merely be “suspended” for six months. That clearly failed to dispel protesters’ desire to occupy roads and roundabouts, nor the determination of many “gilets jaunes” to return to Paris next Saturday despite the government’s increasingly plaintive pleas for people to stay away.

An Elabe poll suggested 78 per cent of French believed that the concessions did not meet the expectations of the "yellow vests”. Some 72 percent continue to support the movement.

In comments to France Info radio, the president’s office said it had received “extremely worrying” information that “a hard core of several thousand people” were intent on coming to Paris next Saturday, the fourth weekend in a row that has seen demonstrations in the French capital.

This time, it said, it expected “extremely violent” protests after receiving intelligence that their aim was to “smash and kill”. 

In another worrying development for the embattled centrist president, whose popularity has slumped to 23 per cent after three weeks of unrest, truck drivers pledged to launch a rolling strike starting Sunday while farmers said they would join nationwide protests next week.

Meanwhile, dozens of lycées were blocked as students set fires outside high schools to protest against a new university application system. Two were seriously injured by flash ball rubber bullets. Retirees also marched to vent ire against new levies on their pensions.

In signs that the Macron administration was unravelling, two ministers had suggested yesterday that France could reinstate the wealth tax that the president partially abolished.

Last year, Mr Macron scrapped France’s contentious wealth tax on everything except property assets - in effect cutting the tax by 70 per cent. The number of people paying it has dropped from 360,000 to 120,000 this year.

The tax cut was part of a concerted move by the Macron administration to woo bankers to France in the wake of Brexit.   

On Wednesday morning, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said that cut could be reassessed in the autumn of 2019.

"If a measure that we have taken, which is costing the public money, turns out not to be working, if it's not going well, we're not stupid - we would change it," he told RTL radio.

But hours later, the Elysée totally quashed that suggestion, telling French media that Mr Macron had upbraided the two ministers who had hinted at restoring the wealth tax, saying: “We will unpick nothing that has been done over the past 18 months.”

Yellow vest protesters say they can longer make ends meet due to a raft of taxes and charges. Their complaint came as France overtook Denmark as the most taxed of OECD countries last year.

Prominent yellow vest “spokesman” Christophe Chalencon called on Mr Macron to speak out, otherwise “there will be chaos," with risks of more deaths.

The president needed to "admit he made a mistake, with simple words ... that touch the guts and heart of the French,” he told AP.