Police fire tear gas as they clash with ‘yellow vest’ protesters amid another weekend of civil unrest in the French capital
- The grass roots movement began as resistance against a rise in taxes for diesel and petrol, but quickly expanded to encompass other grievances
- After two weekends of violence that made authorities look powerless, police in Paris went into overdrive on Saturday to keep a lid on unrest
Crowds of protesters angry at President Emmanuel Macron and France’s high taxes tried to converge on the presidential palace on Saturday, some scuffling with police firing tear gas, amid exceptional security measures aimed at preventing a repeat of last week’s rioting.
Blue armoured vehicles beneath the Arc de Triomphe and rows of helmeted, thickly protected riot police blocked the demonstrators’ passage down the Champs-Elysees avenue toward the heart of presidential power. A ring of steel surrounded the Elysee Palace itself as police stationed trucks and reinforced steel barriers in streets throughout the entire neighbourhood.
Prized Paris monuments and normally bustling shopping meccas were locked down at the height of the holiday shopping season. The Eiffel Tower and Louvre Museum were among tourist attractions that remained closed, fearing damage after rioting and looting last Saturday that saw 130 people injured.
The grass roots “yellow vest” protest movement began as resistance against a rise in taxes for diesel and petrol, but quickly expanded to encompass frustration at stagnant incomes, the growing cost of living and other grievances. Macron agreed to abandon the fuel tax increase, but that has not defused the anger, embodied by the fluorescent safety vests that French motorists are required to keep in their cars.
While scattered scuffles broke out on Saturday around central Paris, the action seemed less violent overall at midday than at the same time a week ago, when crowds defaced the Arc de Triomphe, one of the city’s most revered monuments, and rampaged in the surrounding high-end neighbourhood.
After two weekends of violence in Paris that made the authorities look powerless to secure their capital, police went into overdrive on Saturday to keep a lid on unrest.
Police frisked people or searched bags every hundred metres or so throughout central Paris, and confiscated gas masks and protective goggles from journalists.
Protesters who came to Paris from Normandy described seeing officers block passengers wearing yellow vests from boarding at stops along their route. The national gendarme service posted a video on Twitter of police tackling a protester and confiscating his dangerous material, which appeared to be primarily a tennis racket.
#8décembre Depuis ce matin, nombreuses interpellations d'individus violents porteurs d'objets dangereux. Plus de 5 000 personnes contrôlées sur les axes et péages #ControleDesFlux pic.twitter.com/eIhsefzcNm
— Gendarmerie nationale (@Gendarmerie) December 8, 2018
Macron’s government had warned that the yellow vest protests had created a “monster” and that the Paris actions would be hijacked by radicalised and rebellious crowds and become the most dangerous yet after three weeks of demonstrations.
Demonstrators waving French flags and wearing the movement’s signature neon vests gathered before dawn Saturday near the Arc de Triomphe, then tried to march down the Champs-Elysees toward the presidential palace. Blocked by police, they tried other routes. Protesters threw flares and other projectiles, and were repeatedly pushed back by tear gas.
Groups in yellow vests also gathered near the iconic Bastille plaza and a few other spots around Paris. The city subway system was shut down in the centre of town.
By midday, more than 500 had been detained in Paris, according to a Paris police spokeswoman. No injuries have been reported.
Authorities deployed barricade-busting armoured vehicles and 8,000 police in the capital alone; nationwide, some 89,000 security forces fanned out to deter or confront troublemakers expected at multiple protests.
Many members of the protest movement are calling for calm, and some struck a conciliatory tone after meeting the prime minister on Friday night. But that did not deter many people from trying to march on the presidential palace on Saturday.
“We are here to tell (Macron) our discontent. Me, I’m not here to break things because I have four children so I am going to try to be safe for them because they are afraid,” said protester Myriam Diaz. “But I still want to be here to say ‘Stop, that’s enough, this has to stop.’”
The movement has no clear leaders, and past protests have attracted extremists who hurled projectiles at police.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner urged calm. “I ask the yellow vests that want to bring about a peaceful message to not go with the violent people. We know that the violent people are only strong because they hide themselves within the yellow vests, which hampers the security forces,” he said on Saturday.
Macron himself, the target of the protesters’ ire, has been largely invisible in recent days, leaving his prime minister and government to try to negotiate with protesters.
Four people have been killed in accidents since the unrest began on November 17. Christmas markets, national football matches and countless other events have been cancelled or hurt by the protests.
Parts of Paris looked like they were bracing for a hurricane, with boards on windows covering up the Christmas decorations. Police removed any materials from the streets that could be used as weapons, especially at construction sites in high-risk areas.
Protesters also blocked roads, roundabouts and tollbooths elsewhere in France. Offshoot movements have emerged elsewhere, and yellow vest protests were held on Saturday in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Of those arrested during police checks, 211 were placed in custody, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said from the Interior Ministry’s crisis centre. Some of the arrests occurred early on Saturday as police conducted searches ahead of the protests, seeking to prevent rioting. Tens of thousands of officers have been deployed to control the protests.
Police found hammers, gas masks and petanque balls during the searches, Johanna Primevert, a spokeswoman for the police prefecture, said in an interview with BFM TV. “People have well understood that if they want to demonstrate peacefully, they have to submit to these checks,” she said.
Police used tear gas shortly before 10:30am to clear a dead-end street near the Champs-Elysees where protesters in yellow vests were poring in, images on BFM TV showed. That was the first use of the crowd-control measure of the day, according to the broadcaster. Images also showed some protesters throwing objects at the police near the Champs-Elysees.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg