France's 'Yellow Vest' protests dwindle amid warnings and concessions

Several people said that weariness from weekly protests - and a growing reluctance to attend potentially violent demonstrations - had chipped away at the number of protesters.
Several people said that weariness from weekly protests - and a growing reluctance to attend potentially violent demonstrations - had chipped away at the number of protesters.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (NYTIMES) - The fifth weekend of "Yellow Vest" protests against French President Emmanuel Macron's economic and social policies drew far fewer demonstrators on Saturday (Dec 15), but thousands still filled the streets of Paris and other French cities in defiance of government security warnings and despite the bitter cold.

The demonstrations were also calmer than in past weeks - though some scuffles broke out between protesters and police, who fired tear gas and water cannons several times to disperse crowds.

The ranks of protesters dwindled after Mr Macron this week promised tax cuts and wage increases to mollify the Yellow Vests, who are angry over the cost of living and high taxes. It was still not clear whether Mr Macron was able to convince many of the protesters, as he struggles to address an unstructured and leaderless movement with myriad grievances.

The government had also warned that protests would complicate the task of preventing terrorism, after a shooting last Tuesday at a Christmas market in the eastern city of Strasbourg killed four people.

Mr Pierre-Étienne Billot, 40, was one of the relatively few Parisian demonstrators; most have come to the capital from provinces. He said his opinion of Mr Macron had not changed.

"He is someone who looks down his nose at you," said Mr Billot, who works in marketing. He stood on the famed Champs-Élysées, tear gas wafting in the distance, in front of a large drugstore that was broken into last week by protesters but left alone on Saturday.

Several people said that weariness from weekly protests - and a growing reluctance to attend potentially violent demonstrations - had chipped away at the number of protesters.

 
 
 

The demonstrations have become "a bit repetitive", Mr Billot said. "Demonstrating every Saturday doesn't help the movement. We need more symbolic actions" like blocking airports or other key locations, he added.

On Saturday evening, police said that there were fewer than 3,000 protesters in Paris, and that fewer than 200 people had been arrested compared with more than 1,000 a week ago. The government said about 66,000 had turned out across the country versus more than 125,000 by that same time last Saturday - 10,000 of them in Paris.

In other French cities like Saint-Etienne, Bordeaux or Marseille, turnout and tensions between police and protesters were also lower than in past weeks.

The protesters who did come out said Mr Macron had not done enough to assuage their concerns, even with the recent concessions.

"We are exhausted by the colossal pressure of taxation that takes away the energy of our country, of our entrepreneurs, of our artisans, of our small businesses, of our creators and of our workers, while a small elite constantly dodges taxes," Ms Priscillia Ludosky, best known for a petition calling for a drop in gas prices, said into a megaphone in front of the Paris Opera house, where hundreds of protesters had gathered.

The demonstrations by the Yellow Vests - who take their name from the fluorescent hazard vests that all drivers in France must carry in their vehicles - were initially driven by anger over an increase in fuel taxes, since cancelled. But they have morphed into a much broader expression of frustration over declining purchasing power and a rejection of Mr Macron's style of government.

Another growing demand from the Yellow Vests is the creation of a mechanism for popular referendums in the Constitution as a way to give the public a bigger say in making French laws.

The protests initially erupted on Nov 17, and have been smaller but still unrelenting since. More than 2,100 people - 700 of them police officers, gendarmes or firefighters - have been injured.

Violence during the demonstrations increased, especially over the past two weekends when protesters, some of them vandals, clashed with police, burned cars and looted stores in Paris and other cities. Demonstrators and journalists complained about heavy-handed tactics by police.

In a report published on Friday, Human Rights Watch said that France's "crowd-control methods maim people", pointing to cases where protesters were wounded by rubber projectiles and tear gas grenades.

Preparing for a violent Saturday has become something of a ritual this autumn, especially in Paris, where the authorities deployed thousands of police officers and locked down entire neighbourhoods. Shops and cafes were boarded up, and monuments like the Arc de Triomphe and museums stayed closed.

But the overall mood in Paris remained calm. No cars were burned, and no barricades were erected.

Mr Macron's supporters welcomed the respite. Mr Richard Ferrand, president of France's lower house of Parliament and a close ally of Mr Macron, said that the sparsely attended protests were something to "rejoice" about.

"The hour is not for fighting, but for debating," he told French television reporters.

Mr Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, was more forceful.

"The roundabouts must be freed, and the security of all must once again become the rule," he said on Twitter on Saturday evening, adding that an eighth person had died on the fringes of the demonstrations since the beginning of the movement.

Despite the low turnout on Saturday and even lower expectations that people would protest in the coming week, just days before Christmas, protesters said anger with Mr Macron had not gone away.

"We are fed up," said Mr Jody Demengel, a 19-year-old job seeker, who noted that while Mr Macron had announced some relief, "the students have nothing, the unemployed are still left by the wayside".