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'What can we say?' French bishops cautious in response to ‘yellow vest’ protests

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Bishops condemned the violence but expressed sympathy over the economic conditions causing the protests

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced Tuesday morning that the government would suspend the imposition of a proposed fuel tax increase for six months. The planned increases, originally set to take effect in January, have been at the center of two weeks of demonstrations nationwide, including rioting in Paris.

Catholic leaders have been cautious in their reactions to the demonstrations, expressing sympathy for those bearing the brunt of economic reforms but stopping short of supporting the “yellow vest” movement which has led to cars being burned in the streets of the capital.

Bishop Gilbert Aubry of the Diocese of Saint-Denis de la Réunion, on the small island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, has been the most forthright in addressing the situation, which has also affected the French territory.

In an article released on local media, Bishop Aubry said while civil unrest and violence were unacceptable, the wider economic climate had to be considered.

“We have 40% of our population living below the poverty line and we have 24% unemployment. Some say they have nothing to eat at the end of the month. This is reality,” Aubry wrote on 21 November.

The planned tax, which would have meant a further 6.5 cent tax increase on a litre of diesel and 2.5 cents per litre on gasoline nationwide, is the latest in series of price hikes which have seen fuel costs increase by about 23 percent in the last year. Tighter emissions standards for cars were also meant to be imposed from January. The measures have been suspended for six months in an attempt to quell the civil unrest.

Earlier this year, the government of President Emmanuel Macron brought in a 7.6 cent-per-litre “carbon tax” on fuel as part of the government’s green agenda.

Aubry suggested that the violence seen both on the island and on mainland France is linked in part to a consumerist society, in which people already in tight economic circumstances react to images of unattainable prosperity.

“Consumerist society is exacerbated by advertising. As mirrored dreams cannot be realized, [people feel as though] there is nothing left to lose. These vandals [casseurs], they will attack the symbols of this consumerist society: cars and temples of consumption.”

While condemning the violence, the bishop said thought must be given to its underlying causes.

“We condemn the destructive violence, the riots, and in doing so, we must search for the causes of this violence as well as the necessary remedies,” he wrote.

Aubry also said that it was important not to blame “young people” for the violence which has seen national landmarks like the Arc de Triomphe defaced.

“We cannot speak about young people in a general way and say ‘young people organized the riots.’ Vandals are uncontrollable elements and agitators who benefit from a troubled situation. The vast majority of those we call young people are not vandals,” Aubry wrote.

According to La Croix, a French-language magazine, many bishops and Catholic groups find themselves caught between condemning the out-of-control protests, while remaining sympathetic to the economic pressures causing them.

“There is some pressure on bishops to take a position on the yellow vests. But what can we say?” La Croix quotes Bishop Xavier Malle of Gap and Embrun as saying on social media.

The same article goes on to quote Jérôme Deschard, president of the Christian Retirees Movement, as expressing a cautious level of “solidarity” with the protestors and sharing the wider concerns about the decline in purchasing power for those on a low income.

The protesters have been dubbed “yellow vests” as many of the demonstrators wear the high-visibility vests which are required to be carried in all cars under French law.