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Business worries for France ahead of new 'yellow vest' protests

A fall in economic growth, which would hit tax receipts, would exacerbate the government's budget problems.

FILE: Protesters demonstrate on the Faugbourg Saint-Honore street in Paris on 17 November 2018, during a nationwide popular initiated day of protest called 'yellow vest' (Gilets Jaunes in French) movement to protest against high fuel prices which has mushroomed into a widespread protest against stagnant spending power under French President. Picture: AFP

PARIS - A survey of French businesses on Friday indicated a major dip in activity linked to the month-long "yellow vest" protests ahead of a decisive weekend for the grassroots opposition movement and President Emmanuel Macron.

The survey of businesses by the IHS Market research group indicated that output had contracted in December, underlining the economic impact of disruption caused by the nation-wide demonstrations.

"The latest flash data pointed to an outright contraction in France’s private sector for the first time in two-and-a-half years," IHS Market economist Eliot Kerr commented.

Macron's centrist government is hoping that new concessions announced on Monday, a terror attack in Strasbourg on Tuesday and freezing weather this weekend will deter demonstrators from taking to the streets again.

But many senior "yellow vest" figures, so called because of the florescent high visibility vests they wear, have called for a fifth round of protests on Saturday, sparking fears of more violence.

"It's really the time to keep going," a senior figure in the movement, Eric Drouet, said in a video posted on Facebook.

"What Macron did on Monday, was a call to carry on because he has started to give ground, which is unusual for him," he added.

Drouet was referring to Macron's address to the nation, billed as the most important speech of his presidency, in which he offered a range of concessions to the demonstrators.

The "yellow vest" protests began on 17 November in opposition to hikes in fuel taxes, but have since snowballed into broad resistance to Macron's pro-business agenda and his style of governing.

The 40-year-old head of state, who had already cancelled planned fuel tax hikes, offered a rise in the minium wage, tax relief for pensioners and tax-free overtime work for workers in 2019.

The total package has been estimated by economists to cost around 15 billion euros ($17 billion), which is expected to be financed mostly by government borrowing.

A fall in economic growth, which would hit tax receipts, would exacerbate the government's budget problems.

POLICE ON ALERT

Six people have died since the movement began and more than 1,400 have been injured in the protests by mostly low-income people from small-town and rural France.

Scenes of blockages, massive traffics jams and mobs rampaging through the streets of Paris have dented France's image, as well as Macron's hopes of forcing through more business-friendly reforms.

The numbers of "yellow vest" protesters in the streets have been relatively small by French standards - only 136,000 last weekend - but until now they have benefited from overwhelming public support.

But the impact of Macron's concessions, plus a terror attack in the city of Strasbourg on Tuesday evening, could be crucial in determining whether the movement peters out or continues.

Two polls published on Tuesday showed that the country was split broadly 50-50 on whether the "yellow vests" movement should continue, a fall of around 20 percentage points.

On Tuesday night, a 29-year-old jihadist from Strasbourg in eastern France attacked the city's Christmas market, killing three and injuring 13 in a gun and knife rampage.

He was shot dead by police on Thursday night after 48 hours on the run, leading to praise for France's highly stretched security forces which have been repeatedly targeted during the protests.

"I find it inadmissable that today we are applauding our police and then tomorrow some people think it's ok to go and throw stones at them," Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said on Friday from Strasbourg.

Around 8,000 police will be on duty in Paris on Saturday, around the same number as last weekend, backed up with 14 armoured vehicles, water cannon and horses.

Around 90,000 security forces were mobilised last Saturday across France and 2,000 people were detained, around half of them in Paris.

On Thursday, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux called on "yellow vests" to stay home.

"It would be better if everyone could go about their business calmly on Saturday, before the year-end celebrations with their families, instead of demonstrating and putting our security forces to work once again," he said.

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