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There Is Suddenly A Far Bigger European Problem Than Brexit Or Italy

Forget Brexit and Italian populists for a second. It’s worth paying attention to what’s going on in France.

For more than two weeks, the country has been disrupted by an unusual protest: the so-called “Gilets Jaunes” or “Yellow Vests.” France is used to labor unrest and chaos affecting transport of course, with strikes something of a national pastime.

But this time it’s different.

Some 100,000 people blocking toll roads, petrol stations and crossroads is creating major disruption to transport and retail. It’s also proving to be extremely tricky to defuse, as there’s no single protest leader to negotiate with.

For investors, the question is whether it could derail the outperformance of French equities in 2018. One thing is clear. These protests are a real threat to the country’s retailers, including Carrefour and Casino, which are already busy battling a price war and trying to fend off Amazon.com’s efforts to penetrate their home market. Big-box retailers have been hurt by the demos and blockages throughout the country, with customers denied access to some hypermarkets and supermarkets for entire days at a time. They recorded an average fall in consumer-good sales of 35 percent on Nov. 17 and of 18 percent the following Saturday, according to Nielsen data.

All this is adding to the perception of shrinking purchasing power in France, in particular among people on lower incomes. And that “doesn’t bode well” for the year-end holiday retail season, which needs a boost after the unseasonably hot weather of the previous months, according to Invest Securities. In fact, consumer confidence has been depressed since the summer, and this might be the final straw.

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