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French Protesters Continue Clashes As They Call For Better Economic Conditions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

French President Emmanuel Macron is facing one of the biggest challenges of his presidency. Thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Paris again this weekend. Police fired tear gas grenades and used water cannons against them. The yellow vest protesters get their name from the fluorescent safety vests they wear. And their demonstrations were initially sparked by Macron's controversial gas tax hike. These protests have been going on for weeks now, putting pressure on Macron to step up his response as he prepares to give a nationwide address today. Political scientist Thomas Guenole is a leftist political party member and has been participating in the protests and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

THOMAS GUENOLE: You're welcome. It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: The government of Emmanuel Macron did offer a concession to protesters. He withdrew a planned fuel tax increase last week. So why are the protests continuing?

GUENOLE: Well, it's because, initially, it was a protest only about taxes on gas. However, the government initially reacted by saying it would not change anything and by saying - by expressing kind of contempt towards protesters. And so during several weeks, protesters had the time to experience massive political frustration and to realize that they have way more demands in common than what they initially thought. So it began like an anti-tax rebellion. But after two or three weeks, it became in fact a political platform expressed by massive protests.

MARTIN: Yeah. But you're saying it became about so many more issues because of the government's mishandling of it. So Emmanuel Macron is going to give this address later today. I mean, what could he possibly say that would meet those concerns?

GUENOLE: Well, in fact, he is trapped because what they want is exactly the opposite of what he does. They want to reinstall the solidarity tax on wealth. He said repeatedly it's out of the question. They want more public service and public money to refund properly public service. And he keeps choosing the path of fiscal and budgetary austerity, which is the exact opposite. And he expressed on a regular basis the fantasy of being a tough, strong leader, not really fond of negotiation. And they want the contrary, which is more direct democracy. So, in fact, to satisfy their demands, Emmanuel Macron would basically have to stop being Emmanuel Macron. The thing he will try to do, I think, is to announce several measures with less taxes on households. It may calm down protesters, but I'm not even sure about that.

MARTIN: But you say that this is central to Emmanuel Macron and his platform, but a lot of these issues were problems well before he took office, no?

GUENOLE: Yeah. In fact, Emmanuel Macron is perceived by foreign media as something brand-new but, in fact, is implementing the same policies we have experienced for over three decades now. The only difference is he's accelerating and intensifying it, really. And that's why it explodes, socially speaking, with these protests. And he expresses things with a general behavior of arrogance and social contempt, which made things more severe because protesters feel massive social unfairness. Also, they feel insulted on a regular basis by the very head of state.

MARTIN: Thomas Guenole has been participating in the protests in Paris - a political scientist. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

GUENOLE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.