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Fuel supplies, schools hit – Macron hunts for crisis way out

A high school student is arrested by police during a demonstration against French government education reforms on Dec 3, in Bordeaux, southwestern France. (AFP)

MARSEILLE, Dec 3, (Agencies): Dozens of French “yellow vest” demonstrators blocked access to a major fuel depot and several highways on Monday on the third week of antigovernment protests which led to major riots in Paris at the weekend. Around 50 people blocked the fuel depot in the port of Fos-sur-Mer, near Marseille, where police have repeatedly intervened to dislodge demonstrators since small-town and rural France erupted in protests over rising living costs on Nov 17.

Traffic was also backed up on highways leading to the southern cities of Aix-en-Provence, Orange, Montpellier, Nimes and Sete as the movement, which began over fuel tax increases but has morphed into a broader wave of resistance to Macron’s pro-business policies, rumbled on.

On Monday, the protests spread to around a hundred schools nationwide, which were partially or totally blocked by teenagers piggybacking on the demonstrations to air frustration over new university entrance requirements.

Around 1,000 students shouting “Macron resign!” – some clad in the high-visibility vests that have become the emblem of the movement – demonstrated in the city of Nice on Monday, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.

The situation also remained tense on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion, which has been one of the flashpoints of the protests. Police fired tear gas to repel demonstrators around the island’s sole container port in the west, which has been blocked for 15 days, leading to shortages of imported wheat, medication and other necessities.

France’s biggest public sector union, the CGT, waded into the fray on Monday, calling for a nationwide day of protest on Dec 14 to press for an “immediate” increase in the minimum wage, pensions and social benefits. The “yellow vests” have no links to political parties or trade unions but the CGT, which brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets to protest Macron’s reform of the labour code last year, said it shared their “legitimate anger”. Meanwhile, France’s prime minister met with opposition leaders on Monday as Macron sought a way to defuse nationwide protests over high living costs that led to widespread rioting in Paris at the weekend and are hurting the economy.

The “yellow vest” revolt caught Macron unawares when it erupted on Nov 17 and poses a formidable challenge to the 40-year-old as he tries to counter a plunge in popularity over his economic reforms, which are seen as favouring the wealthy. Riot police were overrun on Saturday as protesters wrought havoc in Paris’s fanciest neighbourhoods, torching dozens of cars, looting boutiques and smashing up luxury private homes and cafes in the worst disturbances the capital has seen since 1968.

The unrest is hitting the economy: hotel reservations are down, retailers are suffering, unsettling investors, and Total said some of its filling stations were running dry. Tourism and transport stocks fell in an otherwise buoyant market. Emerging from Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s office, opposition leader Laurent Wauquiez of the centre-right Les Republicains said the government failed to understand the depth of public anger.

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