OPINION: France must do more on fuel prices or face rebellion this summer

The French government's aid for drivers hit by soaring fuel prices has so far been limited - John Lichfield argues that they must do more or face a 'yellow vest' style revolt by the summer.

OPINION: France must do more on fuel prices or face rebellion this summer
The 'yellow vests' protests of 2018 began as a protest over fuel prices. Photo by MEHDI FEDOUACH / AFP

One of my neighbours in a hill village in Normandy drives to work in Caen every day, 90 kilometres return. Since the Ukraine war began, the bill for his weekly commute has increased by around €16 and is now €90 a week.

As Fabrice earns the minimum wage of just under €300 a week (after taxes and social charges), this is a significant chunk of his income.

“I don’t understand why the government doesn’t just reduce the taxes at the pump,” he said. “Everyone knows that half of what we pay for petrol and diesel goes to the government.”

Actually, Fabrice is wrong about that. The share of taxes in pump prices in France is more than half. It is about 57 percent (16.4 percent VAT; 40.7 percent energy tax).

Petrol and diesel prices were already rising before Vladminir Putin invaded Ukraine and the 21st century. They rose by around 30 centimes a litre in the last three  weeks, more on diesel than on petrol. For the last two or three days, pump prices have been falling as the market for crude and refined diesel falls.

The average across France on Wednesday is reported to be €2.03 for diesel and €1.97 for leadless petrol (sans plomb 95). At the end of January, it was roughly €1.70 a litre. When the Giles Jaunes revolt in provincial France began in 2018 it was around €1.50 a litre.

The government’s response, so far, has been to announce a 15 centimes a litre rebate on all petrol and diesel from  April 1st for four months – both at the pumps for motorists and in bulk supplies for truckers, farmers and fishermen. Why so little and so late?

The government says the rebate represents the whole of the €2 billion in extra taxes which the oil price rises have generated for public funds. To have reduced fuel taxes would have taken too long and involved recalling parliament. It would have given no benefit to professionals who pay no tax on their fuel.

Why the rebate has to wait until April 1st is unclear.

Anger is growing.

Three fuel depots in Brittany – at Brest, Lorient and near Rennes – are being blocked today by a coalition of truckers, farmers, fishermen and public contractors. They say that, with the fuel price so high, taxes or no taxes, it is no longer worth going to work.

Further measures, industry by industry, are expected when the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, announces its Ukraine war “resilience” package for the French economy on Wednesday afternoon. Castex is likely to announce compensations to truckers, fishers and others in the form of reductions in other charges.

Many questions remain.

The fuel price hikes are unlikely to change the direction of a presidential election campaign which is drifting towards a victory for President Emmanuel Macron on April 10th and 24th. If the high prices continue, they could produce a damaging backlash against Macron and his allies in the parliamentary elections in June.

To the high pump prices must be added an upward spiral in food prices and a shortage of vital industrial commodities like aluminium and titanium if the Ukraine war and sanctions on Russia last into the summer.

The government – and all European governments – will be praying for a continuing fall in crude prices in the days ahead. There is no obvious reason, other than speculation, why they rose as high as they did this month.

The European Union has not blocked oil or gas imports from Russia. The United States did so but scarcely buys any. Britain plans to do so, but not before 2023.

In other words, there is plenty of petrol and diesel available – for now.

The reason why French diesel prices have overtaken petrol prices (despite being taxed at a lower rate) is that France imports more refined diesel from Russia than petrol. Speculation on “possible futures shortages” on the main European oil market in Rotterdam has sent the wholesale price of both soaring.

Someone is making a lot of money from the problems of people like my neighbour Fabrice and the Norman fishers who say they can no longer afford to go to sea.

The French government – all EU governments – should consider windfall taxes on companies and individuals who make a killing from the Ukraine war.  The “oiligarchs” are not just in Moscow or Kensington.

The French government might start with TotalEnergies, ex-Total, the French energy giant, which made billions of euros in extra profits from the rise in market oil prices last year. TotalEnergies, unlike say BP and Shell, is also refusing so far to abandon its interests in Russia.

Declaration of no interest: I have an electric car. I can drive smugly past the big totems outside my local Super-U announcing pump prices over €2 a litre. I am pleased to see that President Macron is planning to announce, as part of his election programme, new government subsidies to make the leasing of electric cars affordable for people like my neighbour, Fabrice.

But that will take time. The government may be lucky and oil prices will continue to fall in the weeks ahead. Macron and Castex would be foolish to count on it. 

More needs to be done about fuel prices, and rapidly, if there is not to be a Yellow Vest-type rebellion in provincial France this spring and summer.

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French MPs vote to reject government’s immigration bill

Lawmakers in France's Assemblée Nationale voted in favour of a motion to reject the government's immigration bill on Monday. The surprise move came before debates had begun and prompted calls for the Interior Minister to resign.

French MPs vote to reject government's immigration bill

French MPs did not even debate the highly contested immigration bill, after a majority of deputés voted for a motion de rejet (motion of rejection) on Monday evening.

In total, 270 MPs supported the motion, submitted by Green party MPs, and 265 voted against it. The lower house of parliament had been set to begin debating the bill – and its nearly 2,600 amendments – on Monday.

The motion by the Greens passed after it won cross-party support from left-wing MPs as well as the centre right Republicans party and members of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National.

After the bill was thrown out MPs and the leaders of several opposition parties called for the resignation of France’s under-fire Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

Hard left Jean Luc Mélenchon said: “It feels like the end of the road for the bill and for him.”

Far-right figurehead Marine Le Pen said she was “delighted” with the result, saying it had “protected the French from a migratory tidal wave”.

Prior to the vote Darmanin had told Europe 1 radio that “it would be a denial of democracy not to debate”.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly speaker, Yaėl Braun-Pivet, speaking on RTL, added: “It would be incomprehensible (if they didn’t debate it). The Assembly would shoot itself in the foot.”

The bill aimed to speed up asylum application procedures, facilitate the expulsion of foreigners deemed dangerous and regularise the status of undocumented workers in sectors with labour shortages.

It also would have introduced an annual quota for the number of migrant arrivals to be set by parliament, and removed all but emergency medical coverage for undocumented people.

READ MORE: What’s the latest on France’s new immigration law?

What is next?

According to reporting by French daily Le Parisien, there are a few possible scenarios. 

The government could choose to withdraw the text entirely or it could be sent back to the Senate (where right-wing lawmakers have a majority).

The bill could also be sent back to the joint committee (the ‘CMP’) which is made up of seven National Assembly MPs and seven senators, where it would to be re-examined to try to find some compromise on the basis of the bill that was adopted by the Senate in mid-November.

The former head of the Constitutional Council, Jean-Éric Schoettl, told Le Point magazine that if the bill goes back to the CMP, the resulting text could end up closer to that which was originally passed by the senate, as it “the CMP is more right-wing than the Assemblée”.

Reactions from the opposition

Following the vote, the head of LFI in the Assemblée, Mathilde Panot, said “we are going to spare the country two weeks of xenophobic and racist speech.”

Panot also called on the interior minister to “leave with his law under his arm”.

Green party MP, Marine Tondelier, tweeted “In any case, the government must draw all the consequences and has no other political choice than to abandon this text.”