Police and demonstrators yesterday clashed sporadically in Paris and other French cities as “yellow vest” protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s government took place for a 19th consecutive weekend.
The demonstration in the capital was largely peaceful for most of the day, but later in the afternoon police fired tear gas on protesters near boulevard de Strasbourg, close to the capital’s Gare du Nord and Gare de L’Est railway stations.
Skirmishes also erupted in cities including Lille in northern France, and Toulouse and Montpellier in the south, but there were no immediate reports of injuries.
For the first time yesterday, the government deployed Operation Sentinelle military units to back up police after shops on the capital’s famous Champs Elysees avenue were looted and vandalised during last weekend’s protests.
Protesters were banned from gathering on the Champs Elysees yesterday but demonstrators gathered in other parts of the capital.
Earlier in the day, they marched from Denfert Rochereau in southern Paris up to the Sacre Coeur church in the north.
A yellow awning was briefly draped across the top of the Sacre Coeur, before being taken down by authorities.
The “yellow vests” protests, named after the high-visibility vests French drivers have to keep in their cars and worn by protesters, began in November after public anger against fuel tax rises.
The movement has morphed into a broader backlash against Macron’s government, despite it scrapping the fuel taxes, and it has often been marred by violent clashes and looting.
Authorities banned demonstrations in a large area in the west of the city, including the Champs-Elysees, the scene of last Saturday’s rampage by hundreds of black-clad agitators.
Dozens of police vehicles, including armoured trucks and water cannons, encircled the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the iconic avenue, with officers searching people’s bags and patrolling in front of boarded-up storefronts.
“It would have been asking for trouble to go to the Champs, after the repression they’ve announced,” said Jean-Paul Tonson, a 57-year-old civil servant.
“But we’re going to keep showing up, we’re not going to back down,” he said.
The interior ministry said 8,300 people had turned out for protests across France as of 2pm (1300 GMT), including 3,100 in Paris.
It was a marked declined from the 14,500 counted by mid-afternoon last Saturday, with 10,000 in Paris.
Over 50 people had been detained in the capital, while 29 were given fines — which the government hiked by decree this week to 135 euros ($153) from 38 euros — for protesting in the outlawed sectors, the police said.
Protest bans were also in effect in the centres of Toulouse, Bordeaux, Dijon, Rennes and the southern city of Nice, where Chinese President Xi Jinping is to meet his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron over the weekend.
Dozens of people who defied the ban at Nice’s Garibaldi square near the port were quickly surrounded by security forces and later evacuated, with six people arrested.
Clashes also broke out in some other cities, including Nantes and Montpellier, though the Paris march was largely peaceful.
Macron is under pressure to avoid a repeat of last week’s sacking of the Champs-Elysees, where over 100 shops were damaged, looted or set alight during seven hours of rioting by mainly masked, black-clad protesters.
The government has redeployed soldiers from its Sentinelle anti-terror force to guard public buildings, freeing up the 6,000 deployed police in Paris to tackle any flare-ups of violence.
There was no sign yesterday of the soldiers in much of central Paris, but the move drew fierce criticism nonetheless from opposition parties, who have accused the government of playing with fire.
On social media, several “yellow vest” leaders urged caution, warning demonstrators against appearing to countenance the violence by far-left or far-right infiltrators.
Macron’s government drew fierce criticism over its handling of last week’s protests, when police appeared to hang back during the wave of rioting and vandalism that swept the Champs-Elysees.
Analysts say the authorities may have been reluctant to engage the rioters after the dozens of injuries sustained by participants in previous protests.
But this week officials vowed “zero tolerance” for more violence.
“He needs to show the world that the government has a handle on the country and on the capital,” said Sylvian, the leader of a team of repair workers still clearing away debris on the avenue on Friday after last week’s clashes.
The Paris police chief was fired over his handling of the violence, which saw dozens of windows shattered by people hurling paving stones and wielding hammers and other makeshift weapons.
In a Facebook video this week, Maxime Nicolle one of the movement’s figureheads, explained the periodic rioting in Paris and other cities as the result of “40 years of being beaten psychologically and financially” by successive governments.
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