Macron refuses to back down on French fuel tax as protests loom

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron said he would not back down from a hike in fuel tax, despite plans for nationwide protests this month and his personal popularity reaching a new low.

FILE PHOTO: Fuel nozzles with new European labels to standardise gasoline pumps in the EU zone are seen at a petrol station in Nice, France, October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard/File Photo

Drivers are planning blockades and go-slows across France on Nov. 17 to protest against higher fuel prices, which have increased by up to a third in the past year, making Macron’s claim to help hard-working people harder to defend.

In a bid to fight climate change, his government has voted increases in a carbon tax and decided in particular to ramp up the price of diesel, the most commonly used car fuel in France.

But the increases, decided in late 2017 at a time crude oil prices were hovering under $50 per barrel, have become more painful for consumers after oil surged to over $85 last month. The issue has helped drive Macron’s popularity to as low as 21 percent in a poll published last week.

The president, who has launched a seven-day tour of northeastern France, said he has no plan to back down.

“I prefer taxing fuel to taxing labor. People complaining about rising fuel prices are the same ones who complain about pollution and how their children suffer,” he told regional newspapers in the area, in an interview published on Monday.

Macron’s political rivals have seized on the anger to paint the former investment banker as a member of the metropolitan elite who does not relate to those outside Paris.

“You have to be completely out of touch with reality not to understand that taxing fuel is taxing those French who work,” conservative opposition leader Laurent Wauquiez said on Twitter.

The protests, which according to an Odoxa poll are supported by 78 percent of the French, come at a time Macron is seeking to regain the initiative after a political scandal over the summer and a series of cabinet resignations.

His tour of the northeast, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, gives the 40-year-old leader a chance to reconnect with de-industrializing areas that are among the poorest and most isolated in France.

Sensing a business opportunity from the political tumult over fuel taxes, France's top two hypermarket chains Leclerc and Carrefour CARR.PA announced promotions to sell petrol at cost.

Carrefour said on Monday that its special offer on petrol prices would run until Nov. 17, the date of the planned blockades. Leclerc’s will run until the end of the month.

Additional reporting by Gwenaelle Barzic; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Louise Heavens and Peter Graff