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'Yellow vest' protesters knock wind out of French business, economy

By Reuters   December 3, 2018 | 05:00 pm PT
'Yellow vest' protesters knock wind out of French business, economy
Protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher diesel taxes, stand up in front of a police water canon at the Place de l'Etoile near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, December 1, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Stephane Mahe
Three weeks of “yellow vest” protests have hit the French economy hard, with trade in shops, hotels and restaurants falling significantly, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Monday.

Speaking after a meeting with industry groups and business federations affected by the protest movement, Le Maire said sector revenues had been hit by between 15 and 50 percent.

While not providing a precise breakdown, Le Maire said small retailers had seen a fall in revenue of between 20 and 40 percent, and the hotel industry was seeing reservations down 15 to 25 percent.

Restaurants, depending on their location, had seen takings collapse by between 20 and 50 percent.

"The impact is severe and ongoing," Le Maire said, emphasizing it was nationwide, although Paris, after riots and looting in some of its most upmarket districts on Saturday afternoon and evening, was particularly affected.

The movement began on Nov. 17 as a social-media-planned protest against fuel-tax rises, but has since morphed into an anti-Macron uprising.

The ministry was not able to say what sort of impact the unrest would have on gross domestic product, but having hoped for a pick-up in the fourth quarter on the back of rising consumer spending, that now appears less likely.

Holiday season shopping has started poorly, according to industry group Federation du Commerce et de la Distribution, which expects a slump in hirings and a transfer of shopping to e-commerce, mainly on Amazon, a spokeswoman said.

Amazon was not immediately available to comment but CDiscount, the e-commerce arm of retailer Casino, attributed the record number of visits to its websites partly to "demonstrations or blockades organized outside some shops".

Market data aggregator Nielsen said on Monday retail sales had contracted during three days of nationwide protest since Nov. 17, and had struggled to recover in between. It said supermarket sales had plunged 35 percent on day one on Nov. 17 and 18 percent on day two, Nov. 24.

Last week, sales were down six to 13 percent Monday through Wednesday, picked up slightly on Thursday and Friday, but then fell eight percent again on the third day of nationwide protests on Saturday, it said.

During Saturday’s disturbances in Paris, tourists were left shocked, with some saying they would cut short their visit.

Many sectors affected

When they started, the "yellow vests" protests were focused on denouncing a squeeze on household spending brought about by President Emmanuel Macron’s taxes on diesel, which he says are necessary to combat climate change and protect the environment.

But for the past two weekends there have also been violent demonstrations and clashes with security forces in Paris and other major cities, with protesters calling for Macron to resign. Some call it a revolution against a president who they see as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people.

Saturday’s protests in Paris turned particularly violent, with protesters from the far-right and far-left mixing with the "yellow vests" and intent on causing as much damage as possible.

The Arc de Triomphe was defaced and avenues off Paris’s Champs Elysees were the scene of mass-vandalism.

Shops on the Champs Elysees and in the heart of Paris, including the Apple store and Dior and Chanel boutiques, had their windows smashed. Some others were looted. Prestigious Parisian department stores Printemps and Galeries Lafayette protectively shut their doors on Saturday afternoon.

Luxury groups such as SMCP, Hermes and LVMH, which are heavily dependent on foreign tourists visiting Paris during the Christmas season are likely to suffer, said Berenberg analysts in a report.

The effect may extend through the holiday season.

Hotel industry group UMIH said some Paris hotels were seeing cancellation rates of 20 percent to 50 percent and reservations down 10 percent to 15 percent.

"We have received calls from many worried customers and we have reassured them," said Carlos Conesa, head concierge at the five-star Napoleon Hotel. "During the protests, the hotel didn’t suffer any damage and most of our guests decided to stay inside and had dinner in our restaurants."

While the violence in downtown Paris stunned the country, waves of protests have also targeted road infrastructure, with a another potential impact on the economy.

Vinci Autoroute, France’s largest toll-road operator, has seen dozens of road blockades and forced openings of barriers since the protests erupted two weeks ago. Protesters have also damaged infrastructure, a spokesman said.

French oil major Total has said 75 of its 2,200 petrol stations have run dry as "yellow vests" blockade fuel depots.

Car manufacturer Peugeot SA said production at a plant in eastern France was disrupted for half a day. It takes almost two weeks to recover disrupted output, it said.

Le Maire said both Peugeot and rival Renault had lost vehicle orders.

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