Protesters walk alongside the Seine river during a 'Yellow Vests' protest in Paris, France, 05 January 2019. The so-called 'gilets jaunes' (yellow vests) is a grassroots protest movement with supporters from a wide span of the political spectrum, that originally started with protest across the nation in late 2018 against high fuel prices. The movement in the meantime also protests the French government's tax reforms, the increasing costs of living and some even call for the resignation of French President Emmanuel Macron.Yellow vests protest in Paris, France - 05 Jan 2019

PARIS — On the eve of the winter sales period, French officials said they will extend measures to help retailers recover from protests that have disrupted business across the country during the crucial holiday season.

France’s winter sales kick off Wednesday as the country braces for the possibility of further bouts of disruption and continues to take stock of business lost to the so-called yellow vest movement.

Initially sparked by plans for a fuel tax increase late last year, nationwide protests tapped into broader discontent over declining standards of living, turning suddenly violent. While government measures to reinforce security and bolster purchasing power dramatically reduced the amount of people taking to the streets in yellow safety vests, sporadic outbursts of violence have kept officials and businesses on edge.

Following a meeting with associations representing retailers and other businesses, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, a deputy to the French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, said the government has extended measures including allowing more stores to stay open Sunday into the new year, extending deadlines for payments of social charges and pushing banks and insurance companies to speed assistance to businesses needing extra help. Pannier-Runacher stressed the government’s priority is for business to return to normal.

“First and foremost is the return to order and security for people who work…a priority for everyone around the table,” she said, speaking to reporters following the meeting.

“The government is very clear on this subject. There are working people whose employment is in danger and we must return to what I would call a normal working environment,” she added.

For a country that relies heavily on tourism, images of protesters clashing with police on the world-famous Avenue des Champs Élysées have also been a source of concern for the government.

“The second thing is that we are also committed to reassuring foreigners that France is an attractive country, a respectable place to spend a vacation,” Pannier-Runacher added.

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Taking stock of lost business, the official noted that the situation varied in different parts of the country, with some places noting a decrease of between 5 percent and 10 percent in lost sales whereas other businesses recovered in the run-up to Christmas.

“At the same time, it is a real cause for concern,” she added.

Retailers are hoping for a strong sales season, noted Yohann Petiot, head of the Alliance du Commerce, a retail lobby group mainly in the apparel sector that includes the country’s main department stores.

“We are expecting a lot from the sales…but they are opening in a climate of incertitude,” he added. The possibility that yellow vest protests could crop up on Wednesdays, in addition to Saturdays, cast further doubt over a gloomy climate for consumption, he noted.

“It’s a major concern because [Wednesday] will be an important day for kicking off the sales…generally it sets the tone for the season, along with the first weekend of the sales, so we can’t miss out on it — I hope it will go well throughout France,” he said.

Retailers are waiting for the end of the sales to measure the impact of the protest movement on consumption and are counting on January to build up cash in order to buy collections for upcoming seasons, he added. “So it’s that much more important that we manage to have a successful January,” he said.

While it is too early to say how steep discounts will be, pre-sales that started on Dec. 26 — early for France — carried discounts running as high as 50 percent, noted Petiot. Margins will be the next source of concern, he added.

“[The discounts are] already quite high, so retailers may recover some revenues thanks to the sales but it will have a major impact on their margins…that’s also a problem that will have to be managed in the long term,” he said.