Violent rioters joined protesters on Saturday for an eighth weekend of anti-government protests across the country, with trouble showing no sign of slowing. About 50,000 people took part in protests in France, with demonstrations turning violent in towns and cities including Paris, Nantes and Rouen. The anti-government protesters used a forklift truck to force their way into a government ministry compound, torched cars and motorbikes parked near the Champs Elysées avenue and punched and kicked riot police officers to the ground.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s spokesman Benjamin Griveaux even had to flee his office after it was stormed by protesters.
Mr Le Maire condemned the protests telling Europe 1 radio, TV channel Cnews and newspaper Les Echos: “The yellow vest crisis has a high economic price.
“I already warned that the crisis would shave 0.1 percentage points off growth in the final quarter [of 2018], and this result is still likely.”
He said it was in “everyone’s interest that the crisis comes to an end as quickly as possible”.
Last month, Mr Le Maire said the weeks of unrest were an “economic catastrophe”.
The Bank of France confirmed his fears, saying shortly after that the economy would eke out growth of only 0.2 per cent in the final quarter from the previous three months, down from 0.4 per cent in previous estimates.
The slowdown is a major blow to President Emmanuel Macron’s reformist credentials, and will put further pressure on public finances.
What began in mid-November as a citizen-led rebellion against planned fuel tax hikes has ballooned into a much broader expression of frustration over declining buying power and a rejection of Mr Macron’s pro-market policies, which are said to favour the rich over the poor.
The protesters became known as the “yellow vests” or “gilets jaunes” because they took to the streets clad in the high-visibility yellow jackets all French motorists are required to keep in their cars in case of an emergency.
Mr Le Maire, however, stressed that the government would not take a single step back, despite Mr Macron’s decision last month to scrap the fuel tax hikes, promise to cut taxes for pensioners and increase the minimum wage by €100 £90 a month in an effort to appease protesters.
Mr Le Maire said the government would not give in to yellow vests’ call to reinstate the country’s contentious wealth tax, the ISF, which the young centrist shrank in late 2017 to cover only real estate assets.
He said: “Emmanuel Macron was elected on a manifesto to deeply transform the country’s fiscal policy.”
Reforms need “time” to bear fruit, the finance chief added.
Mr Le Maire said ultra-violent rioters were trying to “bring democracy to its knees”.
“I hope that all those who believe in democracy will join forces and say ‘enough!’,” he said.
“We must listen to minorities, but at the end of the day, in any democracy, it is the view of the majority that counts.”
The interior ministry put the number of protesters who took to France’s streets at 50,000, compared with 32,000 on December 29.
The Macron government, badly shaken by the unrest, has hardened its stance, branding the protesters agitators seeking to undermine the Republic.
Commenting on the attack on the ministry compound, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said the country was “under attack” from “gangsters”.
Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez echoed Mr Le Maire’s comments, saying violent protesters were trying to bring democracy to its knees and “overthrow” the Republic.
The rolling protests have turned into the biggest political crisis of Mr Macron’s 20-month presidency and seriously dented his popularity, which is stuck at around 30 per cent.
The latest yellow vest opinion poll, published last Thursday by Odoxa Dentsu Consulting, showed 55 per cent of the French still support the protest movement.
A figure which, although lower than the 75 per cent recorded back in November, is still important enough to suggest the anti-Macron movement retains political clout.
The Odoxa Dentsu Consulting poll of 1,004 people was carried out online between January 3 and January 4.