French police fired tear gas and water cannon against stone-throwing “yellow vest” protesters in Paris yesterday, on the first anniversary of the movement challenging President Emmanuel Macron’s policies.
There were clashes in other French cities as activists rallied to prove their movement is still a force to be reckoned with, a year after the first giant protest on November 17, 2018.
Numbers attending the protests and levels of violence have sharply diminished in recent months from the height of the movement, which began on the back of frustration Macron was failing to address the needs of ordinary French.
However, yesterday’s protests – which demonstrators called “Act 53” of their weekly gatherings – marked the first serious clashes for months in central Paris between security forces and demonstrators.
Tensions focused on the Place d’Italie square in southeast Paris.
Police in full riot gear flooded the area in tear gas and used water cannon after demonstrators threw stones, set rubbish bins alight and overturned a car and set it ablaze, AFP correspondents said.
A major shopping centre in the area closed after its doors dozens of protesters threw stones at the windows of a neighbouring hotel complex.
A number of demonstrators and a freelance journalist were injured during the clashes.
Officers had arrested a total of 129 people across the city by 7pm (1800 GMT), Paris police said.
The prosecutors’ office said 78 people were being held in custody.
Earlier in the afternoon, Paris police chief Didier Lallement had banned the Place d’Italie demonstration, condemning the “damage and the systematic attacks against the security forces and the fire brigade”.
Police also fired tear gas in the Les Halles area, near the famed Pompidou Centre museum.
Laurent, 50, who had come to Paris from the east of France to mark the first anniversary, said he was disappointed at the violence.
“We are going to look for a quieter place,” he said.
The “yellow vests” want the actions yesterday – their usual day of protest – and today, the anniversary day, to remind the French president that they have not vanished from the scene.
“We’re here even if Macron doesn’t like it,” demonstrators chanted as they arrived on the outskirts of Paris yesterday, with others singing “Happy Birthday”.
Police were deployed in numbers, especially along the Champs-Elysees, which was again closed off to demonstrators following the ransacking of shops that followed a protest last March.
France has a long tradition of violent protest, but the ferocity of last winter’s demonstrations and allegations of police brutality shocked the country.
A poll by the Elabe institute published on Wednesday said 55% of French people support or have sympathy for the “yellow vests”, although 63% said they do not want the protests to begin in earnest again.
The most prominent figures in the movement, which has explicitly shunned any formal leadership structure, acknowledge the declining numbers but say the authorities’ response has not been sufficient.
“We shouldn’t still need to be on the street one year on,” said Priscillia Ludosky, an entrepreneur whose online petition against high fuel prices helped kick off the movement, told the Regards news site.
The “yellow vests” – named for the glow-in-the-dark waistcoats all French drivers must carry in their cars – posed the biggest challenge to Macron since he came to power in 2017 on the back of promises of sweeping change.
Initially taken aback by the size and intensity of the movement, Macron offered billions of euros in state aid and tax breaks – and scrapped a planned fuel tax hike – while embarking on a “Great National Debate” at town halls nationwide.
He has also tried to soften his sometimes abrasive style.
Just weeks before the protests erupted, Macron told a 25-year-old man looking for a job in Paris that “if I crossed the street I’d find you one”.
There were fewer reports of violence and large-scale protests outside Paris but there were clashes at Bordeaux and Toulouse in the southwest, Nantes in the west and Lyon in the east.
“If the movement disappears, I worry that society will dehumanise and that would be the end of public services and the reign of money the king,” said Vanessa, a protester 47, in Nantes.
The next major street challenge to Macron, however, may not come from this weekend’s protests but a strike called by unions on December 5 to rally against his planned pension reforms.
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