Paris on knife-edge ahead of new 'yellow vest' protests

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People build a wooden wall aimed at protecting the shop window of the drugstore publicis, on Dec 7, 2018 in Paris. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Businesses in Paris battened down the hatches on Friday (Dec 7) and streets were cleared of material that could be used as weapons amid fears of further violence during a fourth round of "yellow vest" protests.

The French capital experienced its worst riots in decades last weekend, plunging President Emmanuel Macron's government into its deepest crisis so far.

The Arc de Triomphe war memorial was sacked, dozens of cars torched and shops looted by the radical fringe of a three-week-old rebellion over taxes and inequality.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner on Friday vowed "zero tolerance" towards those aiming to wreak further destruction and mayhem during a new round of protests set for Saturday.

"These past three weeks have seen the birth of a monster that has escaped its creators," Castaner told a news conference, adding: "It's time now for dialogue." Shops around the famous Champs-Elysees boulevard - epicentre of last week's battle - were busy boarding up their windows and emptying them of merchandise on Friday.

"We can't take the risk," said a manager at a Ducati motorcycle dealership as employees loaded luxury Italian racers onto trucks for safekeeping.

The operators of leading museums and landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre and Musee d'Orsay all said they would be closed on Saturday, along with department stores, operas, theatres and libraries.

Foreign governments are watching developments closely.

The US embassy issued a warning to Americans in Paris to "keep a low profile and avoid crowds", a warning echoed by the Turkish foreign ministry for Turkish travellers.

The Belgian foreign ministry advised Belgians planning to visit Paris over the weekend to postpone their visit.

School pupils rounded up

Macron this week gave in to some of the protesters' demands for measures to help the poor and struggling middle classes, including scrapping a planned increase in fuel taxes and freezing electricity and gas prices in 2019.

But the "yellow vests", who have become increasingly radicalised, are holding out for more.

The government has vowed a tough response in the event of further trouble.

Calls on social media for protesters to attack the police or march on the presidential palace have particularly rattled the authorities.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said 8,000 police would be deployed in Paris out of 89,000 nationwide, and that a dozen armoured vehicles would be stationed around the capital - a first.

The police were already facing accusations Friday of being heavy-handed.

A video showed officers in riot gear barking orders at dozens of high-school pupils kneeling on the ground with their hands behind their heads following a demonstration in Mantes-la-Jolie near Paris.

"Whatever wrong was done, nothing justifies this filmed humiliation of minors," Socialist leader Olivier Faure tweeted.

'Not the people'

The "yellow vests", named after the high-visibility safety jackets worn by demonstrators, began blocking roads, fuel depots and shopping centres around France on November 17 over fuel price hikes.

Since then the movement has snowballed into a wider revolt against Macron's economic policies and his top-down approach to power.

Protests at dozens of schools over stricter university entrance requirements, and a call by farmers for demonstrations next week, have added to a sense of a government under siege.

Opposition parties, particularly on the far right and radical left, have sought to capitalise on the protests to try to bring about Macron's downfall.

The protesters accuse the centrist president of favouring the rich and city-dwellers over those trying to make ends meet in car-dependent rural and small-town France.

Many are calling on him to resign.

Castaner on Friday estimated the number of people still taking part in demonstrations at 10,000 nationwide.

"10,000 is not the people, it's not France," he argued, despite polls showing the protesters enjoying strong public support.

Macron's silence

Macron's "cardinal sin", in the eyes of the protesters, was to slash wealth taxes shortly after taking office.

The 40-year-old former investment banker, dubbed "the president of the rich" by critics, has so far ruled out re-imposing the "fortune tax" on high-earners, arguing it is necessary to boost investment and create jobs.

But his climbdown on fuel taxes - intended to help France transition to a greener economy - marks a major departure for a leader who had prided himself on not giving into street protests.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has signalled a willingness to make further concessions.

Macron himself has not commented publicly on the crisis since his return from the G20 summit in Argentina a week ago.

Parliament speaker Richard Ferrand said the president did not want to "add fuel to the fire" in the run-up to Saturday's demonstrations.

He is expected to address the protests in a speech early next week.

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