France set for more ‘yellow vest’ protests despite Macron concessions

  • Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in the fifth weekend of nationwide demonstrations against the government
  • Police were out in force, but say there were fewer people protesting than last week
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 9:28pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 10:36pm

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of French cities on Saturday in the fifth weekend of nationwide demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron’s government, despite calls to hold off after a gun attack in Strasbourg earlier this week.

In Paris, police were out in force to contain possible outbursts of violence. But several major stores, such as the Galeries Lafayette, were open to welcome Christmas shoppers.

Numbers were down compared with Saturday last week, a police source said.

Tear gas was fired at small groups of protesters in brief clashes with riot police near the Champs-Elysees.

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Close by, a handful of topless activists from the feminist protest group Femen faced security forces a few meters away from the Elysee Palace, the president’s residence.

The “yellow vest” movement started in mid-November with protests at junctions and roundabouts against fuel tax increases, but quickly became a wider mobilisation against Macron’s economic policies.

Successive weekends of protests in Paris have lead to vandalism and violent clashes with security forces.

Loic Bollay, 44, marching on the Champs-Elysees in a yellow vest, said the protests were more subdued than in previous weeks but the movement would go on until the demonstrators’ grievances were addressed.

“Since the Strasbourg attack, it is calmer, but I think next Saturday and the following Saturdays … it will come back.”

The Interior Minister said around 69,000 police were active on Saturday with a reinforced presence in the cities of Toulouse, Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne.

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A police source told reporters some 16,000 protesters had been counted in France, excluding Paris, by 1100 GMT, compared with 22,000 at the same time on December 8.

In Paris, where groups of hundreds of protesters marched in splintered groups in several neighbourhoods, 85 had been arrested by around midday, according to a Paris police official.

On Friday, Macron called for a return to calm in France after nearly a month of protests by the so-called yellow vest movement against his government’s policies. The demonstrations have hit growth and caused widespread disruption.

“France needs calm, order and a return to normal,” Macron said, after a meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels.

In a televised address to the nation on Monday, Macron announced wage rises for the poorest workers and tax cuts for pensioners in further concessions meant to end the movement, but many said they would maintain pressure.

The government, as well as several unions and opposition politicians, called on protesters to stay off the streets on Saturday, after four people were killed in a gun attack at a Christmas market in the historic city of Strasbourg.

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Theprotests have already battered the French economy, crushing growth at a time when Macron was in need of a boost to help deliver his reform agenda. The country’s private-sector contracted in December for the first time during Macron’s presidency, according to the latest Purchasing Managers’ Index, and the Bank of France has cut its growth forecasts for this year and next as a broad cross section of sectors are reporting falling output.

Amid the disruptions by the yellow vests, the French are losing the will to spend: sales sacrificed to the protests already exceed 1 billion (US$1.14 billion), according to the FCD national retail federation. More than half of French people have changed Christmas shopping plans due to the protests, according to an Opinionway poll published on December 7, and one in five said they were ordering online for safety reasons.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg