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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EXPLAINED: Does France really have a hijab ban?

As Iranian women burn their hijabs in protest at the country's repressive laws you might have heard people contrasting this to the French 'hijab ban' - but is the Muslim headscarf actually banned in France?

EXPLAINED: Does France really have a hijab ban?

What are the rules? Does France have a hijab ban?

No, France does not have a ban on hijabs in public spaces. However, the rules differ when it comes to headscarves and full-face coverings and this can be confusing because both the full-face veil and the Muslim headscarf are often referred to a voile in French.

In 2010, the country brought in a complete ban on clothing that includes full-face coverings – including the burka and niqab. These cannot be worn in any public space in France, at risk of a €150 fine.

The hijab or headscarf, however, is completely legal in public spaces including shops, cafés and the streets and it’s common to see women wearing them, especially in certain areas of the big cities like Paris.

However, that doesn’t mean there is no restriction on women’s freedom to wear the Muslim headscarf.

In line with France’s laws on laïcité (secularism) it is forbidden to wear overt symbols of religion – including the Muslim headscarf – in government buildings, including schools and universities (with the exception of visitors).

Public officials such as teachers, firefighters or police officers are also barred from wearing any overt symbol of their religion while they are at work.

In 2004, President Jacques Chirac’s government banned all religious signs from state schools. While the law also banned crucifixes and kippas, “it was mostly aimed at girls wearing Muslim headscarves,” explained The Local’s columnist, John Lichfield.

Burkinis are also subject to certain rules. They are not allowed in public swimming pools in France where there are strict regulations regarding dress (Speedos only for men and compulsory swimming caps), but they are allowed on beaches and in other public spaces.

READ MORE: Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

This became a source of controversy during the summer of 2022, when Grenoble challenged the ban on the full-body swimsuit by relaxing its rules on the swimwear permitted in public pools.

In response to the challenge, France’s highest administrative court voted to uphold the countrywide ban in June. 

What about in athletics?

Some federations, such as the French Football Federation, have banned players from wearing the hijab, along with other “ostentatious” religious symbols such as the Jewish kippa.

A women’s collective known as “les Hijabeuses” launched a legal challenge to the rules in November last year.

Other sports, such as handball and rugby, have a more open position.

Are there plans to change these rules? 

Currently, there are no government plans to reverse the ban on full-face coverings including the burka and niqab or to allow the symbols of religion in public buildings, like schools.

There have been attempts to change the current legal framework on the headscarf, however.

In 2021, Senators proposed an to the government’s “anti-separatism bill” that would ban girls under 18 wearing a hijab in public. Several other amendments also targeted Muslim women – such as banning mums from wearing the hijab when accompanying school trips – however these were all defeated in the Assemblée nationale and therefore did not become law.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What does laïcité (secularism) really mean in France?

Are the rules followed?

The rules around the niqab are generally followed and it has become quite rare in France.

However sociologist Agnès De Féo, believes that in the years following its ban, the full-face covering became more popular, rather than less.

She wrote that “the law had an incentive effect: it incited women to transgress the ban by embracing the prohibited object. Prohibition made the niqab more desirable and created a craze among some young women to defy the law.”

As of 2020, however, fewer women wore the niqab and burka in France than they did in 2009.

The rules around the wearing the headscarf in public buildings are generally respected, but it’s not uncommon for rules around any form of Muslim dress to be over-zealously interpreted – sometimes by accident, sometimes with a cynical political intent.

One key example was in 2019, when Julien Odoul, a member of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party, caused widespread outrage after posting a video of himself confronting a headscarf-wearing woman who accompanied students on a field trip.

He cited “secular principles” – arguing that the headscarf’s ban in schools should also extend into school trips.

In response, the country’s Education Minister at the time, Jean-Michel Blanquer, clarified that that “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children.”

There was also controversy at election time over candidates who appeared on posters wearing the hijab, although again this is perfectly legal and doe snot contravene secular principles.