PARIS (BLOOMBERG) - French police fired tear gas and arrested 481 people in Paris on Saturday (Dec 8) as protests by the “yellow vests” movement began across the French capital, a week after extremely violent clashes prompted President Emmanuel Macron’s government to back down on fuel tax increases.
Of those arrested during police checks, 211 were placed in custody, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said from the Interior Ministry’s crisis centre. Some of the arrests occurred early Saturday as police conducted searches ahead of the protests, seeking to prevent rioting. Tens of thousands of officers have been deployed to control the protests.
“We will make sure this day may unfold in the best possible way,” Mr Philippe said.
Police found hammers, gas masks and petanque balls during the searches, Ms Johanna Primevert, a spokesman 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.
So far, the protests were mostly on and near the landmark Avenue des Champs-Elysees, with about 1,500 protesters, according to France Info radio. Several hundred also were protesting around the Bastille square, in eastern Paris, while others attempted to block traffic on a western section of the Paris ring road, known as the “Peripherique”.
Police used teargas shortly before 10.30am local time to clear a dead-end street near the Champs-Elysees where protesters in yellow vests were pouring in, images on BFM TV showed. That was the first use of the crowd-control measure of the day, according to the broadcaster. Images also showed some protesters throwing objects at the police near the Champs-Elysees.
France is bracing for 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 Mr Macron.
After the President this week retreated by cancelling 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 on Friday (Dec 7) as he detailed security measures at a news conference. “Everything leads us to believe that rioters will try to mobilise again.”
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 vandalised the Arc de Triomphe. Police in the capital will be backed up by a dozen armoured 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” on Nov 17. It is organised 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 Mr 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, Mr Macron returned from a G-20 summit in Argentina last Sunday (Dec 2) 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.