To quell unrest, France’s Macron speeds up tax cuts but vows no U-turn

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a special address to the nation, his first public comments after four weeks of nationwide 'yellow vest' (gilet jaune) protests, at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France December 10, 2018. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS

By Michel Rose and John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron on Monday announced wage rises for the poorest workers and tax cuts for pensioners in further concessions meant to defuse weeks of often violent protests that have challenged his authority.

In his first national address following two weekends of France’s worst unrest for years, Macron sought to restore calm and struck a humble tone after accusations that his governing style and economic policies were fracturing the country.

But he refused to reinstate a wealth tax and to back down on his reform agenda, which he said would proceed in 2019 with overhauls of pensions, unemployment benefits and public expenditures.

“We will respond to the economic and social urgency with strong measures, by cutting taxes more rapidly, by keeping our spending under control, but not with U-turns,” Macron said in the 13-minute TV address from the Elysee Palace.

Protesters wearing yellow vests watch French President Emmanuel Macron on a computer screen in Sainte-Eulalie, France, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

Protesters wearing yellow vests watch French President Emmanuel Macron on a computer screen in Sainte-Eulalie, France, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

His response came 48 hours after protesters fought street battles with riot police, torching cars and looting shops – the fourth weekend of protests for the so-called “yellow vest” movement which started as a revolt against high fuel costs.

In measures that are likely to cost billions to state coffers, Macron said people on the minimum wage would see their salaries rise by 100 euros a month in 2019 without extra costs to employers.

His labor minister said this would be achieved by the government topping up small salaries.

Pensioners earning less than 2,000 euros will see this year’s increase in social security taxes scrapped, Macron said, going back on a measure that had particularly hurt his popularity with older voters.

“The effort we asked for was too big and was not fair.”

Asked whether the budget deficit would be kept below the EU limit of 3 percent, an Elysee official said France had some wiggle room on spending if a one-off tax rebate, which inflates its deficit by 20 billion euros in 2019, was not taken into account.

Macron faced a delicate task: he needed to persuade the middle class and blue-collar workers that he heard their anger over a squeeze on household spending, without being exposed to charges of caving in to street politics.

The 40-year old former investment banker was also under pressure to make amends about cutting remarks he made in the past year and a half that critics said made him look aloof and arrogant.

“No doubt over the past year and a half we have not provided answers that were strong and quick enough. I take my share of responsibility,” he said.

“I may have given the impression that I did not care about that, that I had other priorities. I also know that I have hurt some of you with my words.”

Political opponents, who have largely failed so far to tap into the discontent from the leaderless “yellow vest”, criticized Macron’s response as insufficient.

“Emmanuel Macron thought he could hand out some cash to calm the citizen’s insurrection that has erupted,” Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the far-left La France Insoumise, said.

“I believe that Act V (of the protests) will play out on Saturday,” he said referring to a new round of protests planned this weekend.

One of the faces of the “yellow vest” movement appeared unconvinced as well.

“In terms of substance, these are half measures. We can feel that Macron has got a lot more to give,” Benjamin Cauchy, who met the French leader last week, told France 2 television.

 

(Additional reporting by Geert de Clercq, Caroline Pailliez, Richard Lough, Leigh Thomas, Pascale Denis, Jean-Baptiste Vey, Marine Pennetier in Paris and Dhara Ranasinghe in London, Editing by Mark Heinrich)

France braces for trouble, Macron to address ‘yellow vest’ anger

A trash bin burns as youths and high school students attend a demonstration to protest against the French government's reform plan, in Paris, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

By Richard Lough and Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) – France hunkered down for another wave of potentially violent protests on Saturday as embattled President Emmanuel Macron planned to address the nation next week over public fury at the high cost of living, senior allies said.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said the three-week-old “yellow vest” revolt had “created a monster” and vowed police would have no tolerance for violence, with much of Paris in lockdown and tens of thousands of police deployed nationwide.

Named after the fluorescent safety vests that all French motorists must carry, the protesters are billing their planned action on Saturday as “Act IV” of worst unrest seen in the capital since the 1968 student riots.

Castaner warned that radicals would likely again infiltrate the protest movement – a backlash against high living costs but also, increasingly, a revolt against Macron himself, including his perceived loftiness and reforms favoring a moneyed elite.

“These last three weeks have created a monster,” Castaner told reporters. “Our security forces will respond with firmness and I will have no tolerance for anyone who capitalizes on the distress of our citizens.”

Some 89,000 policemen will be on duty nationwide to forestall a repeat of last Saturday’s destructive mayhem in exclusive central districts of Paris. Police in Paris will be backed up by armored vehicles equipped to clear barricades.

Senior allies of Macron said the president would address the nation early next week. Navigating his biggest crisis since being elected 18 months ago, Macron has left it largely to his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, to deal in public with the turmoil and offer concessions.

But the 40-year-old is under mounting pressure to speak more fully as his administration tries to regain the initiative following three weeks of unrest in the G7 nation.

“The President will speak early next week. I think this is what the French people want, they want answers,” Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne told Sud Radio on Friday.

Macron has not spoken in public since he condemned last Saturday’s disturbances while at the G20 summit in Argentina and opposition leaders accused him of turning the Elysee Palace into a bunker where had taken cover.

“Is Macron still in Argentina? He must surely have an opinion,” hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said on Twitter on Tuesday.

“The president himself must speak,” main opposition conservative Republicans leader Laurent Wauquiez told Europe 1 radio on Thursday.

Yellow vests are hung outside windows of an apartment building in support of the "yellow vests" movement in Marseille, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Yellow vests are hung outside windows of an apartment building in support of the “yellow vests” movement in Marseille, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

“FORGOTTEN FRANCE”

After the Dec. 1 riots in central Paris and sometimes violent demonstrations in dozens of other cities and towns across France, the government offered a rush of sweeteners to soothe public anger.

It started by scrapping next year’s planned hikes to fuel taxes, the first major U-turn of Macron’s presidency and costing the Treasury 4 billion euros ($4.5 billion).

But protesters want Macron to go further to help hard-pressed households, including an increase to the minimum wage, lower taxes, higher salaries, cheaper energy, better retirement provisions, and even Macron’s resignation.

But, mindful of France’s deficit and not wanting to flout EU rules, Macron will have scant wriggle room for more concessions.

The “gilets Jaunes” (yellow vest) movement remains amorphous and hard to define, with a rapidly shifting agenda and internal divisions.

One faction, which dubs itself the “Free Yellow Vests”, called on protesters not to travel to Paris on Saturday but criticized Macron for refusing to hold direct talks.

“We appeal for calm, for respect of public property and the security forces,” Benjamin Cauchy declared in front of the National Assembly. His group are seen as moderates within the broader movement.

“The forgotten France is the France of the regions and it is in the regions that France will show peacefully their anger,” Cauchy said.

Youths and high school students attend a demonstration to protest against the French government's reform plan, in Paris, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Youths and high school students attend a demonstration to protest against the French government’s reform plan, in Paris, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

“SMASHING THINGS UP”

The Eiffel Tower, opera house, and Louvre are among dozens of museums and tourist sites in Paris that will close on Saturday to pre-empt feared attacks by yellow vest militants.

Luxury boutiques and restaurants in fancy neighborhoods and near the presidential palace erected barricades and boarded up windows. Department stores Galerie Lafayette and Printemps said they would not open in the capital on Saturday.

The trouble is jeopardizing a timid economic recovery in France just as the Christmas holiday season kicks off. Retailers have lost about 1 billion euros in revenue since the protests erupted, the retail federation said.

On the French stock market, retailers, airlines and hoteliers suffered their worst week in months.

Patrick Delmas, 49, will shut his “Le Monte Carlo” bar next to the Champs Elysees on Saturday, blaming hoodlums from anarchist and anti-capitalist groups, as well as the yellow vest movement’s violent fringe.

“We have lost 60 percent of business over the last 15 days,” he said. “The problem is all those people who arrive with the sole intention of smashing things up.”

(Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Dominique Vidalon, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Richard Lough and Marine Pennetier; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Macron administration warns of ‘great violence’ in Paris from hard core ‘yellow vests’

Trash bins burn as youths and high-school students clash with police during a demonstration against the French government's reform plan in Marseille, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

By Richard Lough and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – French authorities warned another wave of “great violence” and rioting could be unleashed in Paris this weekend by a hardcore of ‘yellow vest’ protesters, as senior ministers sought to defuse public anger with conciliatory languages on taxes.

Despite capitulating this week over plans for higher fuel taxes that inspired the nationwide revolt, President Emmanuel Macron has struggled to quell the anger that led to the worst street unrest in central Paris since 1968.

Rioters torched cars, vandalized cafes, looted shops and sprayed anti-Macron graffiti across some of Paris’s most affluent districts, even defacing the Arc de Triomphe. Scores of people were hurt and hundreds arrested in battles with police.

French police stand guard as youth and high school students burn a trash container during a protest against the French government's reform plan, in Bordeaux, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

French police stand guard as youth and high school students burn a trash container during a protest against the French government’s reform plan, in Bordeaux, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

An official in Macron’s office said intelligence suggested that some protesters would come to the capital this Saturday “to vandalize and to kill.”

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said 65,000 security personnel would be deployed across the country on that day to keep the peace.

In a bid to defuse the three-week crisis, Philippe had told parliament late on Wednesday that he was scrapping the fuel-tax increases planned for 2019, having announced a six-month suspension the day before.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told a conference he was prepared to bring forward tax-cutting plans and that he wanted workers’ bonuses to be tax-free.

But he added: “In this case, it must go hand-in-hand with a decrease in spending.”

He also said France would impose a tax on big internet firms in 2019 if there was no consensus on a European Union-wide levy, seeking to appeal to the “yellow vests'” anti-business sentiment.

SOCCER MATCHES CANCELED

The threat of more violence poses a security nightmare for the authorities, who make a distinction between peaceful ‘yellow vest’ protesters and violent groups, anarchists and looters from the deprived suburbs who they say have infiltrated the movement.

On Facebook groups and across social media, the yellow vests are calling for an “Act IV”, a reference to what would be a fourth weekend of disorder.

“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.

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer urged people to stay at home during the coming weekend. Security sources said the government was considering using troops currently deployed on anti-terrorism patrols to protect public buildings.

Several top-league soccer matches on Saturday have been canceled and the Louvre museum said it and others were awaiting word from Paris officials on whether to close their doors.

The protests, named after the fluorescent jackets French motorists are required 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 and Macron’s resignation.

France’s hard-left CGT trade union on Thursday called on its energy industry workers to walk out for a 48 hours from Dec. 13, saying it wanted to join forces with the yellow vests. The movement, with no formal leader, has so far not associated itself with any political party or trade union.

A French riot policeman stands next to a burning car as youth and high school students protest against the French government's reform plan, in Nantes, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

A French riot policeman stands next to a burning car as youth and high school students protest against the French government’s reform plan, in Nantes, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

STREET POLITICS

The fuel-tax volte-face was the first major U-turn of Macron’s 18-month presidency.

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 laborers. They see the 40-year-old former investment banker as closer to big business.

Trouble is also brewing elsewhere for Macron. Teenage students on Thursday blocked access to more than 200 high schools across the country, burning garbage bins and setting alight a car in the western city of Nantes.

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 and Myriam Rivet; Editing by Toby Chopra)

France dangles wealth tax review as ‘yellow vest’ anger persists

A protester wearing a yellow vest, the symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher diesel fuel prices, holds a flag near burning debris at the approach to the A2 Paris-Brussels Motorway, in Fontaine-Notre-Dame, France, December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

By Sudip Kar-Gupta and Richard Lough

PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron could amend a wealth tax that critics say goes too easy on the rich, his government indicated on Wednesday, a day after suspending further fuel-tax hikes in the face of protests across France over living costs.

The Macron administration is struggling to defuse the anger driving the “yellow vest” protests, as it reels from the worst riots seen in central Paris in five decades last Saturday.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said all tax-related policies needed to be periodically evaluated and, if deemed not to be working, should be changed. He said the wealth tax could be reassessed in the autumn of 2019.

“If a measure that we have taken, which is costing the public money, turns out not to be working, if it’s not going well, we’re not stupid – we would change it,” Griveaux told RTL radio.

The unrest over the squeeze on household budgets comes as OECD data showed that France has become the most highly taxed country in the developed world, surpassing even high-tax Denmark.

Griveaux later told a weekly news conference that Macron had called on all political parties, trade unions and business leaders to press the need for calm.

Student protests and planned trade union strikes in the energy and port sectors next week underscored the risk of contagion.

A Macron aide denied that any eventual revision of the wealth tax would represent a major climb-down by Macron, a pro-business former investment banker, adding that the president remained committed to his reform drive.

Griveaux defended Macron’s decision last year to narrow the wealth tax – known in France as “ISF” – to a tax on real estate assets, rather than all of an individual’s worldwide assets, from jewelry to yachts to investments, over the value of 1.3 million euros ($1.5 million).

Those changes earned Macron the label “president of the rich” among the hard-pressed middle-class voters and blue-collar workers who criticize the president for pursuing policies that favor the wealthy and do nothing to help the poor.

Griveaux said the wealth tax reform had not been “a gift to the rich” and was aimed at encouraging wealthy individuals to invest more in France.

“This money was to be invested in our SMEs for them to develop, innovate and hire. If that is not the case … then we can reopen it for discussion.”

U-TURN

The “yellow vest” movement – so-called because of the high-vis jackets worn by protesters – began with the aim of highlighting the squeeze on household budgets caused by fuel taxes but morphed into a broader, sometimes-violent rebellion against 40-year-old Macron.

His administration’s shift on fuel tax came after rioters ran amok in central Paris, torching cars, looting boutiques vandalizing cafes and private residences and cafes in affluent neighborhoods.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the six-month suspension to the carbon tax would be used to examine other measures to bolster household spending power.

It marked the first major U-turn by Macron in his 18-months in office, at a time polls show that barely one in five French people think he is doing a good job.

U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to mock Macron over the policy shift, which could make it harder for France to meet its CO2 emissions reduction target, a core element of the Paris climate agreement of 2015.

“I am glad that my friend @EmmanuelMacron and the protestors in Paris have agreed with the conclusion I reached two years ago,” Trump tweeted late on Tuesday, as U.N. climate talks take place in Poland.

“The Paris Agreement is fatally flawed because it raises the price of energy for responsible countries while whitewashing some of the worst polluters.”

Adding to Macron’s difficulties, college students are agitating and the hardline CGT trade union on Wednesday called for strikes in the energy industry and at ports on Dec. 13.

“We too want a freeze on the planned closures of coal plants,” the CGT union said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Total said a rising number of its filling stations were running dry as a result of “yellow vest” roadblocks.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Richard Lough and Sophie Louet; Writing by Luke Baker and Richard Lough; Editing by Toby Chopra and Alison Williams)

Macron makes U-turn on fuel-tax increases in face of ‘yellow vest’ protests

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe attends the questions to the government session at the National Assembly in Paris, France, December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

By Simon Carraud and Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) – France’s prime minister on Tuesday suspended planned increases to fuel taxes for at least six months in response to weeks of sometimes violent protests, the first major U-turn by President Emmanuel Macron’s administration after 18 months in office.

In announcing the decision, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said anyone would have “to be deaf or blind” not to see or hear the roiling anger on the streets over a policy that Macron has defended as critical to combating climate change.

“The French who have donned yellow vests want taxes to drop, and work to pay. That’s also what we want. If I didn’t manage to explain it, if the ruling majority didn’t manage to convince the French, then something must change,” said Philippe.

“No tax is worth jeopardizing the unity of the nation.”

Along with the delay to the tax increases that were set for January, Philippe said the time would be used to discuss other measures to help the working poor and squeezed middle-class who rely on vehicles to get to work and go shopping.

Earlier officials had hinted at a possible increase to the minimum wage, but Philippe made no such commitment.

He warned citizens, however, that they could not expect better public services and lower taxes.

“If the events of recent days have shown us one thing, it’s that the French want neither an increase in taxes or new taxes. If the tax-take falls then spending must fall because we don’t want to pass our debts on to our children. And those debts are already sizeable,” he said.

The so-called “yellow vest” movement, which started on Nov. 17 as a social-media protest group named for the high-visibility jackets all motorists in France carry in their cars, began with the aim of highlighting the squeeze on household spending brought about by Macron’s taxes on fuel.

However, over the past three weeks, the movement has evolved into a wider, broadbrush anti-Macron uprising, with many criticizing the president for pursuing policies they say favor the rich and do nothing to help the poor.

Despite having no leader and sometimes unclear goals, the movement has drawn people of all ages and backgrounds and tapped into a growing malaise over the direction Macron is trying to take the country in. Over the past two days, ambulance drivers and students have joined in and launched their own protests.

After three weeks of rising frustration, there was scant indication Philippe’s measures would placate the “yellow vests”, who themselves are struggling to find a unified position.

“The French don’t want crumbs, they want a baguette,” ‘yellow vest’ spokesman Benjamin Cauchy told BFM, adding that the movement wanted a cancellation of the taxes.

Another one, Christophe Chalencon, was blunter: “We’re being taken for idiots,” he told Reuters, using a stronger expletive.

GREEN GOALS

The timing of the tax U-turn is uncomfortable for Macron. It comes as governments meet in Poland to try to agree measures to avert the most damaging consequences of global warming, an issue Macron has made a central part of his agenda. His carbon taxes were designed to address the issue.

But the scale of the protests against his policies made it almost impossible to plow ahead as he had hoped.

While the “yellow vest” movement was mostly peaceful to begin with, the past two weekends have seen outpourings of violence and rioting in Paris, with extreme far-right and far-left factions joining the demos and spurring chaos.

On Saturday, the Arc de Triomphe national monument was defaced and avenues off the Champs Elysees were damaged. Cars, buildings and some cafes were torched.

The unrest is estimated to have cost the economy millions, with large-scale disruption to retailers, wholesalers, the restaurant and hotel trades. In some areas, manufacturing has been hit in the run up to Christmas.

CHANGE FRANCE?

Macron, a 40-year-old former investment banker and economy minister, came to office in mid-2017 promising to overhaul the French economy, revitalize growth and draw foreign investment by making the nation a more attractive place to do business.

In the process he earned the tag “president of the rich” for seeming to do more to court big business and ease the tax burden on the wealthy. Discontent has steadily risen among blue-collar workers and others who feel he represents an urban “elite”.

For Macron, who is sharply down in the polls and struggling to regain the initiative, a further risk is how opposition parties leverage the anger and the decision to shift course.

Ahead of European Parliament elections next May, support for the far-right under Marine Le Pen and the far-left of Jean-Luc Melenchon has been rising. Macron has cast those elections as a battle between his “progressive” ideas and what he sees as their promotion of nationalist or anti-EU agendas.

Le Pen was quick to point out that the six-month postponement of the fuel-tax increases took the decision beyond the European elections.

(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier, Elizabeth Pineau and Richard Lough, John Irish; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Trump claims NATO victory after ‘go it alone’ ultimatum

U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as he holds a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

By Jeff Mason and Sabine Siebold

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Donald Trump claimed a personal victory at a NATO summit on Thursday after telling European allies to increase spending or lose Washington’s support, an ultimatum that forced leaders to huddle in a crisis session with the U.S. president.

Trump emerged declaring continued commitment to a Western alliance built on U.S. military might that has stood up to Moscow since World War Two.

People present said he had earlier warned he would “go it alone” if allies, notably Germany, did not make vast increases in their defense budgets for next year.

“I let them know that I was extremely unhappy,” he said, but added that the talks ended on the best of terms: “It all came together at the end. It was a little tough for a little while.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called the summit “very intense”, and other leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, played down the extent to which they had pledged to accelerate spending plans as fast as Trump wanted.

“He said they must raise spending by January 2019 or the United States would go it alone,” one person said of the clash at NATO headquarters when Trump spoke in a debate that was meant to move to other matters after rows over spending on Wednesday.

Macron and others said they did not interpret Trump’s words as a direct threat to quit the alliance Washington founded in 1949 to contain Soviet expansion. Trump, asked if he thought he could withdraw from NATO without backing from Congress, said he believed he could but it was “unnecessary”.

Others say Congressional approval would be required — and would be unlikely to be forthcoming.

Trump hailed a personal victory for his own strategy in complaining loudly that NATO budgets were unfair to U.S. taxpayers, and the emergence of what he said was a warm consensus around him.

Several diplomats and officials said, however, that his undiplomatic intervention — including pointing at other leaders and addressing Merkel as “you, Angela” — had irritated many.

As the drama unfolded, a day after Trump launched a virulent public attack on German policy, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg cleared the room of many officials and the invited leaders of non-members Georgia and Afghanistan so that the other 28 leaders could hold a closed session with the president.

SPENDING TARGETS

NATO members have committed to spending at least two percent of their national income on defense by 2024, though the terms allow for stretching that in some cases to 2030. The United States, far the biggest economy, spent 3.6 percent last year, while Germany, the second biggest, paid out just 1.2 percent and only a handful of countries met the 2 percent target.

Trump told leaders he wanted them all to hit that target by January, prompting consternation. Many have already settled their 2019 budgets and the sums involved are immense — even if they wanted to, many would struggle to make useful purchases.

Merkel told reporters there followed a discussion with assurances to Trump that spending was increasing — something he later acknowledged was happening at an unprecedented rate.

“The American president demanded what has been discussed for months, that there is a change in the burden sharing,” Merkel said. “I made clear that we are on this path. And that this is in our own interests and that it will make us stronger.”

Asked when exactly the allies would now reach their two percent of GDP target, Trump said it would over the coming years. Macron said France, which last year spent 1.8 percent on defense, would meet the target by the 2024 deadline.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who like the summit host, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, was singled out in the room by Trump for spending less that 1 percent of GDP on defense, said Madrid would also meet the target by 2024.

“We have a very powerful, very strong NATO, much stronger than it was two days ago,” Trump said. “Secretary Stoltenberg gives us total credit, meaning me, I guess, in this case, total credit. Because I said it was unfair.”

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Alissa de Carbonnel and Humeyra Pamuk in Brussels, John Walcott in Washington, Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Jon Boyle)

Far-left anarchists smash windows in Paris during May Day rally

A masked protester walks near a car that burns outside a Renault automobile garage during clashes during the May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

PARIS (Reuters) – Hundreds of hooded protesters held up an annual May Day demonstration in eastern Paris on Tuesday, with some smashing the windows of a McDonald’s restaurant and hurling petrol bombs inside, Reuters television images showed.

French police warned on Monday of possible clashes with far-left anarchist groups, known as Black Blocs, after a call on social media for a “Revolutionary Day”.

Authorities said some 1,200 hooded and masked protesters had turned up on the sidelines of Tuesday’s planned demonstration by labor unions.

People hold a banner which reads, "Students, Employees. Everyone in the Street. General Strike" during the traditional May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

People hold a banner which reads, “Students, Employees. Everyone in the Street. General Strike” during the traditional May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Images also showed the smashed windows of a Renault garage on a road near the Austerlitz station and a construction vehicle in flames.

The protesters moved towards riot police chanting anti-fascist slogans, waving Soviet flags and anti-government banners and throwing firecrackers. Some started to build barricades. The police used water cannon against some of the protesters.

President Emmanuel Macron, elected last May on a promise to shake up France’s creaking economy and spur jobs growth, is locked in a battle with the trade unions over his plans to liberalize labor regulations.

Railway staff have begun three months of nationwide rolling strikes in a dispute over the government’s planned overhaul of state-run railway SNCF.

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Gareth Jones)

U.S., UK, France strike Syria to punish Assad for suspected poison gas use

A missile is seen crossing over Damascus, Syria April 14, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

By Steve Holland and Tom Perry

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S., British and French forces struck Syria with more than 100 missiles on Saturday in the first coordinated Western strikes against the Damascus government, targeting what they called chemical weapons sites in retaliation for a poison gas attack.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced the military action from the White House, saying the three allies had “marshaled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality”.

A child is treated in a hospital in Douma, eastern Ghouta in Syria, after what a Syria medical relief group claims was a suspected chemical attack April, 7, 2018. White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS

A child is treated in a hospital in Douma, eastern Ghouta in Syria, after what a Syria medical relief group claims was a suspected chemical attack April, 7, 2018. White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS

As he spoke, explosions rocked Damascus. In the morning he tweeted: “Mission accomplished”.

The bombing represents a major escalation in the West’s confrontation with Assad’s superpower ally Russia, but is unlikely to alter the course of a multi-sided war which has killed at least half a million people in the past seven years.

That in turn raises the question of where Western countries go from here, after a volley of strikes denounced by Damascus and Moscow as at once both reckless and pointless.

By morning, the Western countries said their bombing was over for now. Syria released video of the wreckage of a bombed-out research lab, but also of President Bashar al-Assad arriving at work as usual, with the caption “morning of resilience”.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, with Damascus allies saying the buildings hit had been evacuated in advance.

British Prime Minister Theresa May described the strike as “limited and targeted”, with no intention of toppling Assad or intervening more widely in the war. She said she had authorized British action after intelligence showed Assad’s government was to blame for gassing the Damascus suburb of Douma a week ago.

In a speech she gave a vivid description of the victims of the chemical strike that killed scores, huddling in basements as gas rained down. She said Russia had thwarted diplomatic efforts to halt Assad’s use of poison gas, leaving no option but force.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the strikes had been limited so far to Syria’s chemical weapons facilities. Paris released a dossier which it said showed Damascus was to blame for the poison gas attack on Douma, the last town holding out in a rebel-held swathe of territory near Damascus which government forces have recaptured in this year’s biggest offensive.

Washington described its targets as a center near Damascus for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weapons, a chemical weapons storage site near the city of Homs and another site near Homs that stored chemical weapons equipment and housed a command post.

A plane prepares to take off as part of the joint airstrike operation by the British, French and U.S. militaries in Syria, in this still image from video footage obtained on April 14, 2018 from social media. courtesy Elysee/Twitter/via REUTERS

A plane prepares to take off as part of the joint airstrike operation by the British, French and U.S. militaries in Syria, in this still image from video footage obtained on April 14, 2018 from social media. courtesy Elysee/Twitter/via REUTERS

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the strikes a “one time shot”, although Trump raised the prospect of further strikes if Assad’s government again used chemical weapons.

“We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” the U.S. president said in a televised address.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss what Moscow decried as an unjustified attack on a sovereign state. Diplomats said the meeting would take place in New York at 11:00 am (1500 GMT).

Syrian state media called the attack a “flagrant violation of international law.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called it a crime and the Western leaders criminals.

Inspectors from the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW were due to try to visit Douma later on Saturday to inspect the site of the April 7 suspected gas attack. Moscow condemned the Western states for refusing to wait for their findings.

Russia, whose relations with the West have deteriorated to levels of Cold War-era hostility, has denied any gas attack took place in Douma and even accused Britain of staging it to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.

But despite responding outwardly with fury to Saturday’s attack, Damascus and its allies also made clear that they considered it a one-off, unlikely to meaningfully harm Assad.

“ABSORBED” THE ATTACKS

A senior official in a regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters the Syrian government and its allies had “absorbed” the attack. The sites that were targeted had been evacuated days ago thanks to a warning from Russia, the official said.

“If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official said.

Dmitry Belik, a Russian member of parliament who was in Damascus and witnessed the strikes, told Reuters by email: “The attack was more of a psychological nature rather than practical. Luckily there are no substantial losses or damages.”

At least six loud explosions were heard in Damascus and smoke rose over the city, a Reuters witness said. A second witness said the Barzah district of Damascus was hit.

A scientific research lab in Barzah appeared to have been completely destroyed, according to footage broadcast by Syrian state TV station al-Ikhbariya. Smoke rose from piles of rubble and a heavily damaged bus was parked outside.

But the Western intervention has virtually no chance of altering the military balance of power at a time when Assad is in his strongest position since the war’s early months.

ASSAD STRONG

In Douma, site of last week’s suspected gas attack, the final buses were due on Saturday to transport out rebels and their families who agreed to surrender the town, Syrian state TV reported. That effectively ends all resistance in the suburbs of Damascus known as eastern Ghouta, marking one of the biggest victories for Assad’s government of the entire war.

Russian and Iranian military help over the past three years has let Assad crush the rebel threat to topple him.

The United States, Britain and France have all participated in the Syrian conflict for years, arming rebels, bombing Islamic State fighters and deploying troops on the ground to fight that group. But they have refrained from targeting Assad’s government apart from a volley of U.S. missiles last year.

Although the Western countries have all said for seven years that Assad must leave power, they held back in the past from striking his government, lacking a wider strategy to defeat him.

The Western powers were at pains on Saturday to avert any further escalation, including any unexpected conflict with their superpower rival Russia. French Defense Minister Florence Parly said the Russians “were warned beforehand” to avert conflict.

The combined U.S., British and French assault involved more missiles, but appears to have struck more limited targets, than a similar strike Trump ordered a year ago in retaliation for an earlier suspected chemical weapons attack. Last year’s U.S. strike, which Washington said at the time would cripple Assad’s air forces and defenses, had effectively no impact on the war.

Mattis said the United States conducted the strikes with conclusive evidence that chlorine gas had been used in the April 7 attack in Syria. Evidence that the nerve agent sarin also was used was inconclusive, he said.

Syria agreed in 2013 to give up its chemical weapons after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people in Douma. Damascus is still permitted to have chlorine for civilian use, although its use as a weapon is banned. Allegations of Assad’s chlorine use have been frequent during the war, although unlike nerve agents chlorine did not produce mass casualties as seen last week.

Mattis, who U.S. officials said had earlier warned in internal debates that too large an attack would risk confrontation with Russia, described the strikes as a one-off to dissuade Assad from “doing this again”.

But a U.S. official familiar with the military planning said there could be more air strikes if the intelligence indicates Assad has not stopped making, importing, storing or using chemical weapons, including chlorine. The official said this could require a more sustained U.S. air and naval presence.

EXIT SYRIA?

The U.S., British and French leaders all face domestic political issues surrounding the decision to use force in Syria.

Trump has been leery of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, and is eager to withdraw roughly 2,000 troops in Syria taking part in the campaign against Islamic State.

“America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria, under no circumstances,” Trump said in his address.

Trump has tried to build good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A prosecutor is investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow in illegal efforts to help him get elected, an investigation Trump calls a witch hunt.

In Britain, May’s decision to strike without consulting parliament overturns an arrangement in place since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Her predecessor David Cameron was politically hurt when he lost a parliamentary vote on whether to bomb Syria.

Britain has led international condemnation of Russia, persuading more than 20 countries to expel Russian diplomats, over the poisoning with a nerve agent of a former Russian spy in England last month. May made clear that case was part of her calculus in ordering retaliation for chemical weapons in Syria.

She argued on Saturday it was necessary to act quickly without waiting for parliament’s approval. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn accused her of following Trump, hugely unpopular in Britain, into battle without waiting for the evidence.

In France, Macron has long threatened to use force against Assad if he uses chemical weapons, and had faced criticism over what opponents described as an empty threat.

To view a graphic on an overview of chemical warfare, click: http://tmsnrt.rs/2pKDWOY

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Tom Perry,; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Tim Ahmann, Eric Beech, Lesley Wroughton, Lucia Mutikani, Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle, Matt Spetalnick and John Walcott in Washington; Samia Nakhoul, Tom Perry, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall in Beirut; Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge in London; and Jean-Baptiste Vey, Geert de Clerq and Matthias Blamont in Paris; Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Turkey says France could become ‘target’ for backing Syria Kurds

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting in Ankara, Turkey March 30, 2018. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey said on Friday that a French pledge to help stabilize a region of northern Syria controlled by Kurdish-dominated forces amounted to support for terrorism and could make France a “target of Turkey”.

French backing for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, has angered Ankara at a time when it is fighting the YPG in northern Syria and considers it a terrorist organization.

President Tayyip Erdogan said France had taken a “completely wrong approach” on Syria, adding that he exchanged heated words with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, last week.

The split with France is the latest rift between Turkey under Erdogan and its NATO allies in the West.

Turkey has long complained about U.S. support for the SDF, among a number of irritants to ties with the leading NATO power. Last year it compared the German and Dutch authorities to Nazis for restricting pro-Erdogan demonstrations during a campaign for a referendum to give him greater powers.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said the French stance was setting Paris on a collision course with Ankara.

“Those who enter into cooperation and solidarity with terror groups against Turkey…will, like the terrorists, become a target of Turkey,” Bozdag, who is also the Turkish government spokesman, wrote on Twitter. “We hope France does not take such an irrational step.”

Macron met an SDF delegation on Thursday and gave assurances of French support to stabilize northern Syria. A presidential source later said France could increase its military contribution to the U.S.-led coalition which – alongside the SDF – is fighting Islamic State in Syria.

The United States has 2,000 troops in SDF-held territory, and France also has some troops there as part of the coalition.

Ankara considers the YPG fighters in the SDF to be an extension of Kurdish militants who have waged a decades-old insurgency in southeast Turkey.

Turkish forces drove the YPG from the northwestern Syrian town of Afrin nearly two weeks ago and Erdogan says Ankara is preparing to extend operations along hundreds of miles of border, including areas where the American forces are deployed.

The Afrin operation has already drawn international criticism, notably from Macron. Ankara, meanwhile, has said it expects its allies to move their troops out of the way of a Turkish advance.

“We have no intention to harm soldiers of allied nations, but we cannot allow terrorists to roam freely (in northern Syria),” Erdogan said.

One U.S. service member and one other member of the U.S.-led coalition were killed by a bomb in Syria overnight, the first to die in an attack this year.

TRUMP SURPRISE

President Donald Trump added fresh uncertainty on Thursday when he said that the United States would be “coming out of Syria” very soon – comments which appeared to take his own administration by surprise.

U.S. officials have said in recent months that Washington planned to keep an open-ended presence in northern Syria, to support stability in the SDF-controlled region, prevent any Islamic State resurgence and counter Iranian influence.

SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel said the force had not been informed of any U.S. withdrawal plan.

“Our work and coordination (with the coalition) is continuing,” Gabriel told Reuters in a written message.

Asked whether U.S. forces had been informed of a decision to withdraw or were preparing to do so, a spokesman for the coalition said he would not comment on future operations.

A PYD member in Paris said Macron had promised at Thursday’s meeting with the SDF to send more troops to northern Syria, provide humanitarian assistance and push a diplomatic solution.

The French presidency did not confirm that Macron had pledged more troops, but the presidential source said France could bolster its military intervention in Syria “within the existing framework” of the U.S.-led coalition.

The presidency also said Macron was offering to mediate between Turkey and the SDF – a suggestion Erdogan dismissed.

“Do not engage in things beyond you, we do not need a mediator,” he said, responding to the French offer in remarks to members of his ruling AK Party in Ankara. “Who are you to speak of mediation between Turkey and a terrorist organization?”

Accusing Paris of appeasing terrorism, he said Macron would be held accountable for his policy by his own people.

“We hope France doesn’t come to us for help when the terrorists running from Syria and Iraq fill their country after being encouraged by their policy,” he said.

Erdogan spoke last week with Macron about the French president’s criticism of Turkey’s Afrin campaign.

“He was saying weird things and so, even if it was a bit high-octane, I had to tell him some things,” Erdogan said. “It is not anyone’s place to portray our armed forces as something we do not find acceptable.”

(Additional reporting by John Irish and Marine Pennetier in Paris, Tom Perry in Beirut and Maher Chmaytelli in Baghdad; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Peter Graff)

France will strike Syria chemical arms sites if used to kill: Macron

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he addresses a news conference in Varanasi, India, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

PARIS (Reuters) – France is prepared to launch targeted strikes against any site in Syria used to deploy chemical attacks that result in the deaths of civilians, President Emmanuel Macron said.

Shortly before the United Nations was due to discuss Syria, Macron said Moscow, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, had not done enough to permit relief efforts into the rebel-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta.

Asked about the Syrian conflict at a news conference in India, Macron said France would be ready to strike if it found “irrefutable evidence” chemical weapons had been used to kill.

“The day we have, in particular in tandem with our American partners, irrefutable proof that the red line was crossed — namely the chemical weapons were used to lethal effect — we will do what the Americans themselves did moreover a few months ago; we would put ourselves in position to proceed with targeted strikes,” Macron said.

The French leader has made the threat before but has so far made little headway influencing events in Syria.

“We are cross-matching our own information with that of our allies but to put it very clearly we have an independent capacity to identify targets and launch strikes where needed.”

Syria signed a Russian-brokered deal to give up its arsenal of chemical weapons to avert U.S. air strikes after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people in 2013. Last year, the United States again accused Damascus of using nerve gas and launched air strikes.

Since then, Washington has repeatedly accused Damascus of using chlorine gas in attacks. Chlorine is far less deadly than nerve agents and possession of it is allowed for civilian purposes, but its use as a weapon is banned.

Damascus and Moscow have been carrying out a fierce bombing campaign and ground assault against the besieged rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave since mid-February, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a countrywide ceasefire.

“This is a debate we will have in the coming hours at the United Nations, where it will be shown that the concessions on the ground from Russia, but first and foremost the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies, are insufficient,” Macron said.

(Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Brian Love; Editing by Richard Lough and Peter Graff)