France is prey to the same “poison” that brought about Brexit, according to President Emmanuel Macron, who on Tuesday refused to drop the fuel hikes that sparked nationwide protests but promised to make them fairer.
Mr Macron has been under pressure to defuse popular anger over planned hikes in “green taxes” on diesel and petrol which has morphed into a wider revolt against basic living costs, high taxes, and a sense of state abandonment in suburban and provincial France.
Two people have been killed and more than 600 injured during the 11 days of unrest across France by protesters dubbed “yellow vests” due to the high-visibility jackets they wear.
In a much-awaited speech at the Elysée, the embattled 40-year old centrist said he understood the anger that has boiled over into sometimes violent protests, a day after slamming weekend riots on Paris’ Champs-Elysées as “war scenes” that risked tarnishing France’s image abroad.
But he insisted: ”What I’ve taken from these last few days is that we shouldn’t change course because it is the right one and necessary.”
France is due to add a carbon tax of three centimes per litre of petrol and six centimes per litre of diesel starting in January, which protesters say penalises rich and poor alike.
In one minor concession, Mr Macron proposed to review fuel tax rates quarterly to take into account global oil prices.
“The end of the world and the end of the month: we will and must manage both,” he said.
Caught flat-footed by daily roads blockages and two weekends of mass demonstrations, Mr Macron said he understood that these reflected “problems and frustrations” that were “poisoning the life of the nation” and affecting all modern-day democracies.
“Brexit, which took place nearly two years ago, is the same issue,” he claimed.
“These British citizens simply said ‘the world you are offering us is no longer for us, we can’t figure it out. We work hard but don’t see any prospects, we can’t build projects for our children, we live less well: it’s for the City but not for us any more.’" he said.
While Britons made a “clear, democratic choice”, Mr Macron, who has previously blasted the referendum as ill-suited to handle complex issues, said that France had the “collective capacity” to “turn anger into solutions”.
His assertion countered claims on Sunday that he didn’t think parallels with Brexit could be easily drawn.
In a speech in which he also outlined France’s blueprint to reach its climate change goals, the President invited “yellow vest” representatives to take part in three months of grassroots discussions on how to create a "popular energy transition" that doesn’t penalise the poor.
He said his government had to “change method” to ensure there was no "two-speed France" where workers living outside cities felt forgotten by an urban elite.
But he pointed to a fundamental “paradox" at the heart of the protests. "You cannot chant in the same slogan: ‘cut taxes and build more crèches, schools’," he said.
He also announced plans to shut down 14 of the country’s 58 nuclear reactors currently in operation by 2035, with between four and six closed by 2030.
Protesters appeared unimpressed.
Jason Herbert, a “spokesman” for the movement said: “For now these are just words and the yellow vests remain mobilised.”
"We’re all fed up," one told BFM TV. "He’s not listening to us. Our anger is real.”
“Macron is sticking to his course, so are we,” chanted 50 “yellow vests” at their self-appointed “headquarters” – a roundabout in Trégueux, Brittany.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen slammed the speech as "devoid of any solutions", while far-Left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon said his comments would not quell what he called a “popular insurrection”.
Conservative MP Damien Abad said Mr Macron’s remarks underlined the yawning gap between the President and the people. "This was a technocrat’s speech, disconnected from the reality of French and not touching on their concerns," he said.