Paris, home to magnificent art, architecture, music and cuisine, is unquestionably one of the world's greatest cities. But in recent weeks, the City of Light has been the scene of the most destructive protests in the last half-century.
The streets erupted after French President Emmanuel Macron announced a planned hike on fuel taxes.
Roughly two-thirds of French cars run on diesel, in part because the government has taxed diesel less than gasoline. But skyrocketing diesel prices have hit France. This year alone, its price has spiked by 23 percent, creating the highest price in 15 years.
Macron blamed the high price of diesel on fluctuating international oil prices. Nevertheless, he pursued his campaign to improve the environment and ward off climate change through higher taxes on fossil fuels, with a plan to phase out all fossil fuel-burning vehicles by 2040.
He announced an increase of 6.5 cents per liter on diesel and 2.9 cents on gasoline, for good measure. Both were to be implemented by Jan. 1, 2019.
That's when all hell broke loose.
Violent "gilets jaunes" (yellow vest) protests exploded on the streets of Paris, and in other French cities, for three straight weeks against the new fuel taxes. Store windows were shattered, shops vandalized, schools shut down, cars set aflame and historic monuments defaced. Four people lost their lives. Police were heavily involved and often needed to use brute force and tear gas to control the situation.
French citizens had some surprising opinions about the protests. A Harris Interactive report conducted just after the Dec. 1 protest revealed that while 85 percent of respondents opposed the violence, 72 percent supported the yellow vests.
How is this possible? The Atlantic's Paris-based writer Rachel Donadio offered this insight: "The protesters have said that whereas Macron is focused on the end of the world, they are simply focused on the end of the month."
At the start of the protests, Macron's approval rating hovered around 26 percent. Since then, it has sunk to an astonishingly dismal 18 percent, according to one poll.
It is little surprise, then, that in the face of rampant violence and bitter criticism, the French president blinked.
On Dec. 4, Macron announced the fuel taxes would be suspended for six months and countrywide consultations about them would be held. He even opted to forgo gas and electricity price hikes and tougher rules for vehicle emissions tests that were planned for the cold winter months.
But people are still angry. The furor seems to have uncovered some long-brewing hostility by rural people and suburbanites against the wealthier city elites who, they feel, tell them how to live. Since those in the countryside cannot afford homes in such cities as Paris, they spend more time commuting to work or driving on the job. The tax hikes thus hit them harder.
The average personal tax rate is 45 percent in France, which is higher than the 37 percent average in all other OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. France seems to be testing the outer limits of how much taxation is possible without civil unrest.
We will see how Macron preserves his presidency and his environmental initiatives in the face of these developments.
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD