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Macron govt hopes 'yellow vest' protests running out of steam

Around 66,000 protesters turned out again on Saturday for a fifth round of anti-government demonstrations, which sprung up over fuel tax hikes last month.

French President Emmanuel Macron. Picture: @EmmanuelMacron/Twitter.

PARIS – The French government was on Sunday hoping the sharp drop in "yellow vest" demonstrators signalled an end to protests which have plunged President Macron into the biggest crisis of his presidency.

Around 66,000 protesters turned out again on Saturday for the fifth round of anti-government demonstrations, which sprung up over fuel tax hikes last month.

The figure was about half the number of the previous weekend, suggesting "the end of a cycle of mobilisation", according to Jerome Saint-Marie of pollsters Pollingvox.

"One stage is behind us, certainly, and I think that that is in everybody's interest, including the yellow vests," Education Minister Michel Blanquer said.

Although the drop in protesters suggested the momentum of the "yellow vest" movement was waning, sociologist Herve Le Bras from the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) said they would leave a bitter legacy.

"It is calming down but what remains of it all is a strong feeling of hatred towards Macron," he said.

A major poll by the Ifop group published in Journal du Dimanche newspaper showed Macron's approval rating had slipped another two points in the last month, to 23%.

The proportion of people who declared themselves "very dissatisfied" by his leadership jumped by six points to 45%.

An Opinionway poll for LCI television, however, registered a two-point increase to 31% overall. The poll was carried out on Wednesday and Thursday, after Tuesday's deadly attack on Strasbourg's Christmas market.

Many of the protesters have targeted Macron personally, calling on him to resign or attacking his background as an investment banker.

Le Bras said the protests had underlined the depth of dislike for Macron's personality and style of governing, which critics see as arrogant and too distant.

'CONTEXT HAS CHANGED'

Until last week, a clear majority of French people backed the protests, which sprung up initially over high taxes before snowballing into broader opposition to Macron.

In a bid to end the standoff, he announced a package of measures for low-income workers on Monday in a televised address, estimated by economists to cost up to €15 billion ($17 billion).

The 40-year-old also acknowledged widespread animosity towards him and came close to apologising for a series of verbal gaffes seen as dismissive of the poor or jobless.

Two polls published last Tuesday - in the wake of Macron's concessions - suggested the country was now split broadly 50-50 on whether the protests should continue.

"It's a movement that has succeeded in forcing back what looked like a strong government," Pollingvox's Sainte-Marie said.

"People have confidence in themselves now, so things won't return to how they were on November 15" before the protests started, he said.

"The context in which Emmanuel Macron holds power has changed."

The former investment banker had until now styled himself as a determined pro-business reformer who would not yield to pressure from protests like his predecessors.

The government has announced however a six-month consultation with civil society groups, mayors, businesses and the "yellow vests" to discuss tax and other economic reforms.

Hikes in petrol and diesel taxes, as well as tougher emissions controls on old vehicles - justified on the grounds of environmental protection - were what initially sparked the "yellow vest" movement.

CALLS FOR CALM

In Paris on Saturday, more than 8,000 police on duty easily outnumbered the 2,200 protesters counted by local authorities.

Tear gas was occasionally fired, but only a fraction compared with the weekends of December 8 or December 1 when graffiti was daubed on the Arc de Triomphe in scenes that shocked France.

Richard Ferrand, the head of the National Assembly, welcomed the "necessary" weakening of "yellow vest" rallies on Saturday, adding that "there had been a massive response to their demands".

Now, he added: "The time for dialogue has come."

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner called on protesters to halt their blockades across the country which have disrupted traffic and businesses.

"Everyone's safety has to become the rule again," he tweeted.

"Dialogue now needs to unite all those who want to transform France."

He said eight people had died since the start of the movement.

Around 69,000 security forces were mobilised across France on Saturday, down from 89,000 the previous weekend, when 2,000 people were detained.

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