French service activity plummets in December as unrest bites -PMI

A protester holding a French flag takes part in a demonstration by the "yellow vests" movement on the Champs Elysees near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, December 29, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

PARIS, Jan 4 (Reuters) - French services activity fell more than previously thought last month, retreating at the fastest pace in more than four years during a period of violent anti-government protests, a monthly survey showed on Friday.

Data compiler IHS Markit said its purchasing managers index for services plunged in December to 49.0 from 55.1 in November, worse than a preliminary reading of 49.6.

The index dropped through the 50-point threshold dividing expansion from contraction, to its lowest level since November 2014.

The weakness in France’s dominant service sector weighed on overall business activity, with IHS Markit’s overall PMI index also dropping more than flagged in a preliminary reading.

The overall PMI index, which includes services and already published figures for manufacturing, fell to 48.7 from 54.2 in November, worse than the 49.3 originally reported.

France has witnessed some of the worst street violence in decades during grassroots protests that initially targeted fuel hikes in mid-November, causing some business to board up windows during the peak pre-Christmas holiday season.

Named after the yellow high-visibility vests French drivers are required to keep in their cars, the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests have snowballed into a broader anti-government movement against the high cost of living and President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-business reform drive.

“The protests added to the growing list of problems faced by Emmanuel Macron,” IHS Markit economist Eliot Kerr said. “The unexpected downturn due to the social unrest represents significant downside risk to Q4 growth prospects.”

The INSEE official statistics offices forecast last month that the economy eked out growth of only 0.2 percent in the final quarter of 2018 as confidence in the retail sector nosedived.

Reporting by Leigh Thomas; editing by John Stonestreet