Riot-hit Chile presses forward with social reforms

Riot-hit Chile presses forward with social reforms
By Dave Sherwood

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chile’s president and lawmakers prepared on Thursday to push forward social equality reforms after the easing of riots in the latest flashpoint of protests against South American leaders.

Center-right leader Sebastian Pinera was to ship a bill to Congress that would overturn a recent hike in electricity rates, one of several measures he hopes will turn the violent demonstrations into an “opportunity” for Chile..

Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno also repealed the elimination of fuel subsidies this month after protests, while Bolivia’s Evo Morales faced demonstrations over an election, and Argentina’s Mauricio Macri has suffered a backlash over economic turmoil.

In Chile, anger over inequality and cost of living sent tens of thousands into the streets to demand an overhaul in one of the region’s traditionally most stable, and wealthy, nations.

Over five days of unrest that appeared to be dying down on Wednesday night, more than 6,000 people have been detained and at least 16 killed.

Pinera’s proposed reforms include a guaranteed minimum wage, a hike in state pensions and reductions in public transportation costs. Some, such as a bill to provide insurance against catastrophic illness, have already been delivered to lawmakers.

Octavio Solis, 43, an unemployed security guard, said he hoped the government acted quickly.

“We’re tired of all this, the protests, the looting. It’s a disaster. This isn’t the Santiago we once knew,” Solis said as he waited in line to receive an unemployment payment.

“We need good salaries and pensions for our elderly.

CITY LIFE

The capital city of about 6 million people awoke to relative calm on Thursday, as vendors peddling orange juice and fruit cups once again appeared on street corners.

Public markets reopened and thousands of commuters, dressed in work outfits and clutching coffees, made their way to work on the still hobbled underground transport system that has suffered more than $300 million worth of damage.

Trash, broken glass, graffiti and tear gas lingered in the aftermath of protests that went late into Wednesday evening, but ended peacefully.

Thousands of striking workers, including healthcare professionals and teachers, banged pots and carried banners past darkness in Santiago and other cities.

The marches were closely monitored by police and soldiers.

The unrest has included arson attacks and looting. At least 18 people died, according to one official count. Chilean prosecutors have since clarified that two of the total died in a car accident unrelated to the riots.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

French government offers sweeteners to head off fresh ‘yellow vest’ unrest

A French fireman extinguishes a burning car as youths and high school students protest against the French government's reform plan, in Nantes, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

By Richard Lough and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – The French government hinted at more concessions to ‘yellow vest’ protesters on Thursday in a bid to head off another wave of violence in the capital over living costs and regain the initiative after weeks of civil unrest.

With protesters calling on social media for “Act IV” – a fourth weekend of protest – Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said 65,000 police would be drafted in to stop a repeat of last Saturday’s mayhem in Paris when rioters torched cars and looted shops off the famed Champs Elysees boulevard.

Philippe told the Senate he was open to new measures to help the lowest-paid workers. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said he was prepared to accelerate tax cuts for households and that he wanted workers’ bonuses to be tax-free.

“I am ready to look at all measures that will help raise the pay of those on the minimum wage without doing excessive damage to our competitiveness and businesses,” Philippe told the parliament’s upper house.

The rush of sweeteners to soothe public anger began with Philippe’s climb-down on fuel tax hikes, the first major U-turn of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.

Yet, five days after the worst rioting central Paris has seen since 1968, all signs are that the government has failed to quell the revolt.

A repeat of last Saturday’s violence in Paris’s city center — which saw rioters deface the Arc de Triomphe with anti-Macron graffiti — would deal a blow to the economy and raise doubts over the government’s survival.

Philippe said the state would do all it could to maintain order. At least four first division football matches have been canceled and several museums including Paris’ Grand Palais said they would close.

ACT IV

An official in Macron’s office said intelligence suggested some protesters would come to the capital with the aim to “vandalize and kill”. There is concern about far-right, anarchist and anti-capitalist groups like the Black Bloc, which have piggybacked off the ‘yellow vest’ movement.

The Paris prefecture on Thursday told restaurants and luxury boutiques along the Champs Elysees boulevard to close on Saturday and asked local Paris authorities to prepare their districts for violence.

On Facebook and across social media, protesters are calling for “Act IV”.

“France is fed up!! We will be there in bigger numbers, stronger, standing up for French people. Meet in Paris on Dec. 8,” read one group’s banner.

Security sources said the government was considering using troops currently deployed on anti-terrorism patrols to protect public buildings.

The protests, named after the fluorescent safety jackets French motorists have to keep in their cars, erupted in November over the squeeze on household budgets caused by fuel taxes. Demonstrations swiftly grew into a broad, sometimes-violent rebellion against Macron, with no formal leader.

Their demands are diverse and include lower taxes, higher salaries, cheaper energy costs, better retirement provisions and even Macron’s resignation.

STREET POLITICS

Reversing course on next year’s fuel-tax hikes have left a gaping 4 billion euro hole in the government’s 2019 budget which it is now searching for ways to plug.

Citing unnamed sources, Les Echos business daily said the government as considering delaying corporate tax easing planned next year or putting off an increase in the minimum wage.

The unrest has exposed the deep-seated resentment among non-city dwellers that Macron is out-of-touch with the hard-pressed middle class and blue-collar workers. They see the 40-year-old former investment banker as closer to big business.

An Elabe poll on Thursday showed that only 23 percent of people trusted Macron, now lower than his predecessor Francois Hollande at the same period in his presidency.

Trouble is also brewing elsewhere for Macron. Teenage students on Thursday blocked access to more than 200 high schools across the country, burnt garbage bins and setting alight a car in the western city of Nantes. Hundreds of students were arrested after clashes with riot police.

Meanwhile, farmers who have long complained that retailers are squeezing their margins and are furious over a delay to the planned rise in minimum food prices, and truckers are threatening to strike from Sunday.

Le Maire said France was no longer spared from the wave of populism that has swept across Europe.

“It’s only that in France, it’s not manifesting itself at the ballot box, but in the streets.”

(Reporting by Richard Lough and Marine Pennetier; additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, Michel Rose, Emmanuel Jarry, John Irish and Myriam Rivet; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Mexico gas price hike spurs looting, blockades as unrest spreads

Demonstrators march after gas prices are raised in Mexico

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexicans angry over a double-digit hike in gasoline prices looted stores and blockaded roads on Wednesday, prompting over 250 arrests amid escalating unrest over the rising cost of living in Latin America’s second biggest economy.

Twenty-three stores were sacked and 27 blockades put up in Mexico City, Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said, days after the government raised gasoline costs by 14 to 20 percent, outraging Mexicans already battling rising inflation and a weak currency.

Mexican retailers’ association ANTAD urged federal and state authorities to intervene quickly, saying 79 stores had been sacked and 170 forcibly closed due to blockades.

Deputy interior Minister Rene Juarez said over 250 people had been arrested for vandalism and that federal authorities were working with security officials in Mexico City and the nearby states of Mexico and Hidalgo to address the unrest.

“These acts are outside the law and have nothing to do with peaceful protest nor freedom of expression,” Juarez said in a press conference late on Wednesday.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said earlier on Wednesday that the price spike that took effect on Jan. 1 was a “responsible” measure that the government took in line with international oil prices.

The hike is part of a gradual, year-long price liberalization the Pena Nieto administration has promised to implement this year.

State oil company Pemex said on Tuesday that blockades of fuel storage terminals by protesters had led to a “critical situation” in at least three Mexican states.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper and Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)