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Macron to meet unions, address nation seeking to end 'yellow vest' crisis

Katy Lee - Agence France-Presse
Macron to meet unions, address nation seeking to end 'yellow vest' crisis
French President Emmanuel Macron (C) flanked by Interior Minister Christophe Castaner (2ndR), Paris police prefect Michel Delpuech (R) and French Junior Minister attached to the Interior Ministry Laurent Nunez (L) walks in a street of Paris on December 2, 2018, a day after clashes during a protest of Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs.
AFP / Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt

PARIS, France — President Emmanuel Macron will address the nation on the "yellow vest" crisis Monday and meet trade unionists and business leaders in search of a way to end the protests that have rocked France.

The president will speak to the French people at 8:00 p.m. (1900 GMT), his Elysee office announced—his first public comments after four weeks of nationwide anti-government demonstrations which again turned violent Saturday in Paris and other cities.

Government officials have said the 40-year-old centrist would announce "immediate and concrete measures" to respond to protesters' grievances.

Calls have multiplied across the political spectrum for drastic action, with former far-right presidential rival Marine Le Pen urging Macron to "recognize society's suffering and deliver immediate, very strong responses".

"It is clear that we underestimated people's need to make themselves heard," government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told Europe 1 radio on Sunday.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the weeks of unrest were an "economic catastrophe" for France, causing havoc on the roads and putting off shoppers and tourists in the run-up to Christmas.

The "yellow vests," clad in the luminous safety jackets carried by law in all French cars, began staging nationwide roadblocks on November 17 in protest against tax hikes raising the price of fuel.

Their demonstrations have since snowballed into a mass movement against ex-banker Macron, whom protesters accuse of being out of touch with ordinary people in provincial France.

Looting and rioting, blamed mostly on far-left and far-right agitators, has repeatedly broken out in Paris, spreading to Bordeaux, Toulouse, and other cities. 

Authorities said the property damage caused in the capital on Saturday was far worse than a week earlier, with burnt-out cars and broken glass left strewn across several neighborhoods.

Some 10,000 protesters had taken to Paris' streets, where about 8,000 police were deployed.

Security forces launched a massive operation in a bid to minimize the unrest, detaining more than 1,000 people and mobilizing armored cars in Paris for the first time.

Further climbdowns? 

Elected in May 2017 on a promise to revitalize the sluggish French economy, Macron had previously vowed not to be swayed by mass protests like his predecessors.

But he announced a climbdown on the hated fuel tax rise last week, and further concessions appear to be on the cards.

So far, Macron has refused to back down on another policy that is deeply unpopular among the "yellow vests": his decision to scrap a tax on assets for France's richest. 

Labor Minister Muriel Penicaud on Sunday also rejected the idea of an increase in the minimum wage—a demand from many protesters who say they are barely scraping by.

"We know that destroys jobs," Penicaud said.

"If we raise all salaries automatically, many businesses would just go bust—or they would have to raise their prices, and no one would pay for their services."

With an estimated 136,000 people taking part nationwide last weekend, the protests have shown little sign of easing since they began.

The protesters overwhelmingly hail from rural and small-town France but have a range of different goals—from lower taxes to Macron's resignation—making his attempted negotiations with them all the more difficult.

EMMANUEL MACRON
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