November 19, 2018 / 6:00 PM / a month ago

'Yellow vest' protests block fuel depots in France, retailers hit

PARIS (Reuters) - Protesters angered by higher fuel taxes blocked access to three oil depots in France and sporadic unrest erupted in the overseas territory of Reunion, in a third day of demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron’s economic reforms.

Up to 20,000 protesters clad in fluorescent high-visibility jackets blocked highways across France with burning barricades and convoys of slow-moving trucks, as the government showed no sign of backtracking on a further fuel tax hike on Jan. 1.

French oil and gas giant Total said it operated two of the three affected depots on mainland France, one in Vern, near the northwest city of Rennes, and the other in Fos-sur-Mer in the south. A fourth depot was blocked on Reunion, a former French colony that lies between Mauritius and Madagascar.

The so-called “yellow vest” movement was born out of a backlash against higher fuel prices, but has tapped a broader frustration at the perceived squeeze in household spending power and mounting public dissatisfaction with Macron.

The price of diesel at the pump has increased by about 20 percent in the past year to an average of 1.49 euros ($1.68)/litre, according to website www.carbu.com Some of the increase is due to rising global oil prices earlier in the year.

A protester was killed at the weekend when a panicked driver ran her down at a blockade in the southeastern department of Savoie and more than 400 people were hurt in sometimes violent confrontations between drivers and demonstrators.

In Reunion, looters on Monday ransacked a shopping mall in the south of the island and many businesses remained shuttered after mobs torched 70 cars at a dealership and trashed a fast-food outlet. Roadblocks paralysed traffic on some of Reunion’s main highways.

In 18 months in power, Macron has stared down trade unions and street protests as he loosened labour laws and overhauled the heavily indebted state rail operator SNCF, unflinching in his resolve to inject new energy into the French economy.

However, derided by political opponents and left-leaning voters as a “president of the rich”, the former investment banker’s popularity has dwindled to new lows.

A survey for pollster IFOP published on Monday showed a four-point fall in the past month in his approval rating, with just one in four people satisfied with his performance.

In a sign the “yellow vest” protests might impact the economy if they persist, shopping malls saw revenues fall by an estimated 35 percent on Saturday, according to consultancy group Nielsen.

Organisers have vowed to continue their protests until the government drops the taxes.

Reporting by Bate Felix, Simon Carraud and Richard Lough in Paris, Claude Canellas in Bordeaux and Jean-François Rosnoblet in Marseille; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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