Macron scraps French fuel tax hike amid violent protests

Riot police clash with demonstrators during a protest of Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs on the Champs Elysees in Paris, on December 1, 2018. (AFP / Alain Jocard)
Updated 06 December 2018
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Macron scraps French fuel tax hike amid violent protests

  • Many workers in France are angry over the combination of low wages, high taxes and high unemployment that have left many people struggling financially
  • Instead of appeasing the protesters, Macron's decision has spurred other groups to join in, hoping for concessions of their own

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron scrapped a fuel tax rise Wednesday amid fears of new violence, after weeks of nationwide protests and the worst rioting in Paris in decades.
Protesters celebrated the victory, but some said Macron’s surrender came too late and is no longer enough to quell the mounting anger at the president, whom they consider out of touch with the problems of ordinary people.
Macron decided Wednesday to “get rid” of the tax planned for next year, an official in the president’s office told The Associated Press. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told lawmakers the tax is no longer included in the 2019 budget.
The decision has ramifications beyond France, since the fuel tax rise was part of Macron’s efforts to wean France off fossil fuels in order to reduce greenhouse gases and help slow climate change. Its withdrawal is both a blow to broader efforts to fight climate change and a warning to other world leaders trying to do the same thing.
The “yellow vest” protests began Nov. 17 over the government plan to raise taxes on diesel and gasoline, but by the time Macron bowed to three weeks of violence and abandoned the new fuel tax, protesters were demanding much more. Many workers in France are angry over the combination of low wages, high taxes and high unemployment that have left many people struggling financially.
On Tuesday, the government agreed to suspend the fuel tax rise for six months. But instead of appeasing the protesters, it spurred other groups to join in, hoping for concessions of their own. The protests took on an even bigger dimension Wednesday with trade unions and farmers vowing to join the fray.
Police warned of potential violence during demonstrations in Paris on Saturday, with one small security forces union threatening a strike.
So after nightfall Wednesday, as parliament debated the 2019 budget, Macron’s government suddenly gave in.
“I have no problem with admitting that on such or such question we could have done differently, that if there is such a level of anger ... it’s because we still have a lot of things to improve,” the prime minister told legislators.
Philippe said “the tax is now abandoned” in the 2019 budget, and the government is “ready for dialogue.” The budget can be renegotiated through the year, but given the scale of the recent protests, Macron is unlikely to revive the added fuel tax idea anytime soon.
Jacline Mouraud, one of the self-proclaimed spokespeople for the disparate yellow vest movement, told the AP that Macron’s concession “comes much too late, unfortunately.”
“It’s on the right path, but in my opinion it will not fundamentally change the movement,” she said.
Three weeks of protests have caused four deaths, injured hundreds and littered central Paris with burned cars and shattered windows.
The sweep of the protests and their wide support by citizens of all political stripes has shocked Macron’s government. In the last few days, Paris saw the worst anti-government riot since 1968, French students set fires outside high schools to protest a new university application system, small business owners blocked roads to protest high taxes, and retirees marched to protest the president’s perceived elitism.
Macron’s popularity has slumped to a new low since the demonstrations began. The former investment banker, who has pushed pro-business economic reforms to make France more competitive globally, is accused of being the “president of the rich” and of being estranged from the working classes.
On Wednesday, France’s largest farmers union said it will launch anti-government protests next week, after trucking unions called for a rolling strike.
Trade unions so far have not played a role in the yellow vest protest movement but are now trying to capitalize on growing public anger. A joint statement from the CGT and the FO trucking unions called for action Sunday night to protest a cut in overtime rates.
The FNSEA farmers union said it would fight to help French farmers earn a better income but would not officially be joining forces with the “yellow vests” — protesters wearing the high-visibility vests that motorists are required to keep in their cars.
French police have cleared most of the fuel depots that protesters blocked earlier in the week, but fuel shortages still hit parts of France on Wednesday, affecting hundreds of gas stations.
Demonstrators also blocked toll booths, letting drivers pass without paying, to press demands that ranged from higher incomes and pensions to the dissolution of the National Assembly, France’s parliament.
At Tolbiac University in downtown Paris, students took over a school building and classes were canceled.
“We need taxes, but they are not properly redistributed,” protester Thomas Tricottet told BFM television.
The high school students’ FIDL union called for “massive” protests Thursday and urged France’s education minister to step down.
One student was injured during protests at a high school in Saint-Jean-de-Braye in north-central France. BFM said he was shot in the head with a rubber bullet. Julien Guiller, a spokesman for the regional school administration, told the AP that the student was expected to survive.
Until he scrapped the fuel tax rise, Macron’s actions after returning from the G-20 summit in Argentina had done little to persuade protesters that he was listening to their concerns.
He has refrained from speaking publicly about the protests and has largely remained in his palace. On Tuesday night, he was jeered as he traveled to a regional government headquarters that was torched by protesters over the weekend.
One activist said Wednesday that he fears more deaths if Saturday’s yellow vest demonstration in Paris goes ahead and urged Macron to speak out and calm the nation.
“If not there will be chaos,” said Christophe Chalencon.
Chalencon, a 52-year-old blacksmith from southern France, told the AP the French public needs Macron to “admit he made a mistake, with simple words ... that touch the guts and heart of the French.”
In a disparaging tweet, US President Donald Trump claimed that Macron’s decision Tuesday to delay the gas tax hike showed that the French leader doesn’t believe in the 2015 Paris global climate accord.
The Trump tweet came as thousands of climate experts were meeting in Poland to work out national responsibilities in the fight to reduce emissions and slow global warming.


Trump ex-lawyer Cohen sentenced to 3 years prison on campaign charge

Michael Cohen
Updated 12 December 2018
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Trump ex-lawyer Cohen sentenced to 3 years prison on campaign charge

  • Cohen received 36 months for the payments and two months for the false statements to Congress
  • ‘It was my own weakness and a blind loyalty to this man that led me to choose a path of darkness over light’

NEW YORK: Michael Cohen, US President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, was sentenced to a total of three years in prison on Wednesday for his role in making illegal hush-money payments to women to help Trump’s 2016 election campaign and lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower project in Russia.
US District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan sentenced Cohen to 36 months for the payments, which violated campaign finance law, and to two months for the false statements to Congress. The two terms will run simultaneously. The judge set March 6 for Cohen’s voluntary surrender.
Cohen pleaded guilty to the campaign finance charge in August and to making false statements in November. As part of the sentence, the judge ordered Cohen to forfeit $500,000 and pay restitution of nearly $1.4 million for the campaign finance law violations.
Cohen, 52, had walked into court on Wednesday morning with his wife, son and daughter, amid a crowd of photographers and reporters.
The sentencing capped the stunning about-face of a lawyer who once said he would “take a bullet” for Trump but has now directly implicated the president in criminal conduct. The three-year sentence imposed by the judge was a modest reduction from the four to five years recommended under federal guidelines, but still underscored the seriousness of the charges.
“While Mr. Cohen pledges to help in further investigations that is not something the court can consider now,” Pauley said.
Federal prosecutors in New York charged that Cohen, just before the November 2016 election, paid adult film actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 and helped arrange a $150,000 payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal so the women would keep quiet about their past relationships with Trump, who is married. Trump denies having the affairs.
Prosecutors have said the payments violated campaign finance laws. Cohen told prosecutors the payments were directed by Trump, implicating the president in a possible campaign finance law violation.
Federal law requires that the contribution of “anything of value” to a campaign must be disclosed, and an individual donation cannot exceed $2,700.
“It was my own weakness and a blind loyalty to this man that led me to choose a path of darkness over light,” Cohen told the judge during the sentencing hearing.
“I felt it was my duty to cover up his own dirty deeds,” Cohen said, referring to Trump.
Cohen was sentenced on the separate charge of lying to Congress brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election and possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and Moscow. Cohen pleaded guilty to that charge last month.
“He came forward to offer evidence against the most powerful person in the country,” one of Cohen’s lawyers, Guy Petrillo, told the court on Wednesday, arguing for leniency. Cohen cooperated knowing “the president might shut down” Mueller’s investigation, Petrillo said.
Trump has denied any collusion with Russia and has accused Mueller’s team of pressuring his former aides to lie about him, his campaign and his business dealings. Russia has denied US allegations of interfering in the election to help Trump.
In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Trump denied the payments were campaign contributions. “If it were, it’s only civil, and even if it’s only civil, there was no violation based on what we did,” Trump said.
Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani has argued the hush payments cannot be considered campaign finance violations because they were made to protect Trump’s reputation and would have been made even if he had not been a presidential candidate.
In his guilty plea to Mueller’s charge, Cohen admitted he lied to Congress about the timeline for discussions about plans for real estate businessman Trump’s proposed skyscraper in Moscow. The project was never built.
Cohen said in written testimony to two congressional committees that the talks ended in January 2016, before the first electoral contests to select the Republican presidential nominee, when they actually continued until June 2016 after Trump clinched the Republican nomination.