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France braces for travel turmoil as ‘yellow vests’ take on Macron

French drivers seething over high fuel prices have vowed to snarl traffic across the country Saturday in a widely supported protest that could prove the trickiest so far for President Emmanuel Macron.

France braces for travel turmoil as 'yellow vests' take on Macron
Demonstrators wearing yellow vests (gilets jaunes) in Dole, eastern France. Photo: AFP

The “yellow vests” movement, named for the high-visibility jackets worn by supporters, erupted on social media last month with calls for mass blockades of roads and highways.

Anger over fuel costs, blamed on taxes imposed by Macron to fight pollution, has been simmering for months, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas where public transport is patchy.

“Nobody thinks about the people on the city fringes, in the provinces, in rural areas,” said Priscillia Ludosky, a business manager in a Paris suburb who launched an online petition last May which now has more than 850,000 signatures.

“They tell them to use alternative transportation but the reality is that's not possible. They have no other choice but to pay up,” she said.

But analysts say the movement now represents more widespread frustration over stagnant spending power under Macron, a former investment banker who promised economic revival and to restore people's trust in government.

Critics accuse him of neglecting the needs of the poor and the provinces in favour of tax cuts for the wealthy and other policies which mainly help well-heeled urbanites.

A poll by the Elabe institute this week found that 73 percent of respondents backed the “yellow vests”, and 70 percent wanted the government to rescind the fuel tax hikes, which are slated to continue through 2022.

“Even 54 percent of people who voted for Macron support this movement,” said Vincent Thibault, Elabe's senior research director.

“The expectations and discontent over spending power are fairly broad, it's not just something that concerns rural France or the lower classes,” he said.

The movement's leaders have refused any alignment with political parties or labour unions, echoing similar tax revolts which dot French history back through the centuries.

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Around 1,500 protests are expected across France, aiming to thwart access to city centres, create gridlock on major roads and highways, and block access to airports.

Motorway operators have appealed for anyone not having to drive to stay at home.

In Paris a “snail operation” will snarl the city's main ring road before heading toward the Elysee Palace.

“We're fed up,” Thierry Marre, a former oil industry manager who is organising protests in the southeastern Provence region, told AFP this week, saying the government had “to back down.”

“They're stealing our lives,” he said. “People can't afford to go on holiday, they don't have enough to put any money away for saving.”

Macron admitted in a prime-time TV interview this week that he had “not succeeded in reconciling the French with their leaders” and “we have probably not given them enough consideration.”

But other officials have stoked ire by calling the drivers' protest “irrational,” while government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux dismissed “people who smoke and drive diesel cars” as “not the France of the 21st century.”

“Emmanuel Macron's unpopularity is increasingly acrimonious. It's become more of a societal opposition, not just political,” said Jerome Sainte-Marie, head of the PollingVox institute.

Macron's approval ratings are stuck at around 30 percent in various polls, and despite payroll tax relief which kicked in last month and reductions in residency taxes, he remains widely perceived as a “president of the rich.”

“Emmanuel Macron is in real trouble with average people: he represents the Parisian social and intellectual elite and that sends a very negative image,” Sainte-Marie said.

But the 40-year-old centrist has shown no signs of changing course, saying he will pursue his reform agenda despite risking the wrath of voters.

The government has said it will not tolerate road shutdowns Saturday, and some 30,000 additional police officers will be on call in case of disruptions.

Macron does have some on his side: several cycling groups have called for counter-protests in support of the higher fuel taxes. 

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LIVING IN FRANCE

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer's here and the time is right for national celebrations, traffic jams, strikes, Paris beaches, and ... changing the rules for new boilers.

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer holidays

The holiday season in France officially begins on Thursday, July 7th, as this is the date when school’s out for the summer. The weekend immediately after the end of the school year is expected to be a busy one on the roads and the railways as families start heading off on vacation.

READ ALSO 8 things to know about driving in France this summer

Strikes

But it wouldn’t really be summer in France without a few strikes – airport employees at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports will walk out on July 1st, while SNCF rail staff will strike on July 6th. Meanwhile Ryanair employees at Paris, Marseille and Toulouse airports will strike on yet-to-be-confirmed dates in July.

READ ALSO How strikes and staff shortages will affect summer in France

Parliamentary fireworks?

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne will present the government’s new programme in parliament on July 5th – this is expected to be a tricky day for the Macron government, not only does it not have the parliamentary majority that it needs to pass legislation like the new package of financial aid to help householders deal with the cost-of-living crisis, but opposition parties have indicated that they will table a motion of no confidence against Borne.

Parliament usually breaks for the summer at the end of July, but a special extended session to allow legislation to be passed means that MPs won’t get to go on holiday until at least August 9th. 

Fête nationale

July 14th is a public holiday in France, commemorating the storming of the Bastille which was the symbolic start of the French Revolution. As usual, towns and cities will host parades and fireworks – with the biggest military parade taking place on the Champs-Elysées in Paris – and many stores will remain closed.

As the national holiday falls on a Thursday this year, many French workers will take the opportunity to faire le pont.

Festival season really kicks in

You know summer’s here when France gets festival fever, with events in towns and cities across the country. You can find our pick of the summer celebrations here.

Paris Plages

The capital’s popular urban beaches return on July 9th on the banks of the Seine and beside the Bassin de la Villette in northern Paris, bringing taste of the seaside to the capital with swimming spots, desk chairs, beach games and entertainment.  

Summer sales end 

Summer sales across most of the country end on July 19th – unless you live in Alpes-Maritimes, when they run from July 6th to August 2nd, or the island of Corsica (July 13th to August 9th).

Tour de France

The Tour de France cycle race sets off on July 1st from Copenhagen and finishes up on the Champs-Elysée in Paris on July 24th.

New boilers

From July 1st, 2022, new equipment installed for heating or hot water in residential or professional buildings, must comply with a greenhouse gas emissions ceiling of 300 gCO2eq/KWh PCI. 

That’s a technical way of saying oil or coal-fired boilers can no longer be installed. Nor can any other type of boiler that exceeds the ceiling.

As per a decree published in the Journal Officiel in January, existing appliances can continue to be used, maintained and repaired, but financial aid of up to €11,000 is planned to encourage their replacement. 

Bike helmets

New standards for motorbike helmets come into effect from July 1st. Riders do not need to change their current helmets, but the “ECE 22.05” standard can no longer be issued – and all helmets sold must adhere to a new, more stringent “ECE 22.06” standards from July 2024

New cars

From July 6th new car models must be equipped with a black box that record driving parameters such as speed, acceleration or braking phases, wearing (or not) of a seat belt, indicator use, the force of the collision or engine speed, in case of accidents.

New cars II

From July 1st, the ecological bonus for anyone who buys an electric vehicle drops by €1,000, while rechargeable hybrids will be excluded from the aid system, “which will be reserved for electric vehicles whose CO2 emission rate is less than or equal to 20g/km”.

What’s in a name?

Historically, the French have been quite restrictive on the use of family names – remember the concern over the use of birth names on Covid vaccine documents? – but it becomes easier for an adult to choose to bear the name of his mother, his father, or both by a simple declaration to the civil status. All you have to do is declare your choice by form at the town hall of your home or place of birth.

Eco loans

In concert with the new boiler rules, a zero-interest loan of up to €30,000 to finance energy-saving renovations can be combined with MaPrimeRénov’, a subsidy for financing the same work, under certain conditions, from July 1st.

Rent rules

Non-professional private landlords advertising properties for rent must, from July 1st, include specific information about the property on the ad, including the size of the property in square metres, the area of town in which the property is in, the monthly rent and any supplements, whether the property is in a rent-control area, and the security deposit required. Further information, including the full list of requirements for any ad, is available here.

Perfume ban

More perfumes are to be added to a banned list for products used by children, such as soap-making kits, cosmetic sets, shampoos, or sweet-making games, or toys that have an aroma.

Atranol, chloroatranol (extracts of oak moss containing tannins), and methyl carbonate heptin, which smells like violets, will be banned from July 5th, because of their possible allergenic effects.

Furthermore, 71 new allergenic fragrances – including camphor, menthol, vanilin, eucalyptus spp. leaf oil, rose flower oil, lavendula officinalis, turpentine – will be added to the list of ingredients that must be clearly indicated on a toy or on an attached label.

Ticket resto limits

The increased ticket resto limit ended on June 30th, so from July 1st employees who receive the restaurant vouchers will once again be limited to spending €19 per day in restaurants, cafés and bars. The limit was increased to €38 during the pandemic, when workers were working from home.

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