Tensions escalated across Paris with police firing tear gas and using water cannons to quell “Yellow Vests” protesters, a week after extremely violent clashes prompted President Emmanuel Macron’s government to back down on fuel tax increases.
By midday Saturday, nearly 600 people had been arrested and close to 400 placed in custody in Paris, according to the police prefecture. Some arrests were carried out early today as police conducted searches ahead of the protests, seeking to prevent rioting. Tens of thousands of officers have been deployed nationwide. About 31,000 protesters were out in the streets, junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said in an interview with France 2.
In Paris, protesters were mostly contained to the Champs-Elysees and near the Opera district, on boulevard Poissonniere, where some were trying to erect barricades, using urban furniture and stones from the pavement, and defying police forces, according to images broadcast by BFM TV.
“We will make sure this day unfolds in the best possible way,” French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told reporters during a visit to the crisis cell at the Interior Ministry.
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.
France is facing a fourth weekend of nationwide protests. They began last month to fight higher gasoline taxes and have now spread to other demands, reflecting complaints about purchasing power and a general dislike of Macron.
After the president this week retreated by canceling a fuel-tax increase planned for January, members of his government and even some members of opposition parties had called on Yellow Vests to ignore calls for fresh protests after last weekend’s demonstrations led to widespread vandalism and car burnings across Paris.
“The movement has given birth to a monster,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said Friday as he detailed security measures at a news conference.
After being taken by surprise by the scale of last Saturday’s violence, Paris prepared by closing many museums, asking shops on the Champs-Elysees avenue to shutter, and postponing Saturday’s Paris Saint-Germain-Montpellier football match. The Eiffel Tower as well as iconic department store Galeries Lafayette are closed for the day.
More than 89,000 officers have been deployed across the country to maintain order including 8,000 in Paris where demonstrators a week ago torched cars, fought with riot police and vandalized the Arc de Triomphe. Police in the capital will be backed up by a dozen armored vehicles.
The grassroots movement — named after the vests that all motorists must keep in their cars — has led to sporadic blockades of roads, fuel depots and warehouses since the first “day of action” Nov. 17. It’s organized through social media and has no leadership, but has the support of three-quarters of the French public, polls show.
The movement’s demands have also expanded to higher pensions, an increase in the minimum wage, a repeal of other taxes, the restoration of a wealth tax, a law fixing a maximum salary, and replacing Macron and the National Assembly with a “People’s Assembly.” While political parties have tried to show their support for the movement, the Yellow Vests have rejected any political link.
At first the government dismissed the movement, saying the higher gasoline taxes had been compensated by cuts in payroll taxes. Then it sought to highlight its contradictory demands, which include fewer taxes and better services. As popular support for the movement rose and violence spread, Macron returned from a G-20 summit in Argentina last Sunday to hold a series of emergency meetings that led with scrapping next year’s fuel-tax hikes, a rare retreat for the stubborn 40-year-old.
Most Yellow Vests said the measures were too little too late and maintained their roadblocks as well as calls for today’s protests in Paris.