* Hollande faces violent anti-tax protests in Brittany
* Dozens of tollgates torched at great expense to government
* Government rejects ultimatum to repeal road transport tax
By Nicholas Vinocur
PARIS, Nov 6 French President Francois
Hollande's government on Wednesday rejected demands of
protesters in Brittany for the scrapping of a planned levy on
truck traffic, defying the most violent anti-tax unrest since it
came to power.
The western Brittany region is home to much of France's
livestock and meat production sector, which has faced a spate of
plant closures due to competition from cheaper foreign rivals.
Hollande, battling to bring France's public deficit in line
with EU targets, has given way on several planned tax rises,
including a levy on corporate profits and new charges on special
savings products. Soccer clubs plan to strike next month over a
"super-rich" tax they will have to pay on their top earners.
Local protesters - wearing red bonnets in a nod to the
region's 17th century peasant revolts - fear the "ecotax" due to
be imposed on heavy goods traffic from January will further hit
their business. They have destroyed more than two dozen
sensor-based toll-gates erected over major routes.
The government agreed last month to suspend introduction of
the tax but rejected a deadline of midday local time given by
opponents to scrap it altogether or face more protest action.
"The government has understood how great the difficulties
are," Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, one of several
Bretons in the cabinet, told France Inter radio. "But ultimatums
have no place in the French Republic - that's not how we work."
The "eco-tax" was initially agreed by former President
Nicolas Sarkozy to try to nudge firms toward rail and river
transport while raising 1 billion euros ($1.35 bln) a year.
Hollande, pushed by his Green coalition allies, decided to
pursue plans for the tax after winning an election in May 2012.
It is unclear whether the government will be able to revive
the tax at all in the run-up to local and European Parliament
elections early next year in which Hollande's ruling Socialists
are expecting heavy losses. Yet the state must pay out 800
million euros to the private contractor charged with
administering the scheme even if the tax is abandoned.
French farmers say they are penalised because rivals in
Germany and elsewhere do not have to pay France's minimum wage
of 9.4 euros per hour, reducing their labour costs. A minimum
wage is a main issue in negotiations for a new "grand coalition"
between conservatives and Socialists in Germany.
Farm Minister Stephane Le Foll, another Breton, appealed to
Brussels this week for increased aid to farmers - to no avail.
Protesters, who include farmers, agri-business workers and
regional activists, say the tax would destroy jobs in a region
already hit by a spate of factory shutdowns. Laid-off workers at
the Gad slaughterhouse fought last month with employees at
another site spared from closure. Protests have also erupted at
a Marine Harvest fish-processing plant due to close.
But economic woes do not fully explain the protests in
Brittany, a region where official statistics show jobless rates
are lower than the national average of around 11 percent.
Stephane Rozes of the Cap political consultancy said the
"red bonnet" protests were fuelled by a potent mix of regional
pride and fury against Brussels.
"There is the very strong history of solidarity between
social groups in Brittany, but also anger against European
policies that put nations under strain," he said. "That's why
we're seeing the rise of populist movements."
($1 = 0.7421 euros)
(editing by Mark John)