'Yellow vests' hit French streets in fifth weekend of protests

France is experiencing yet another wave of discontent as riot police try to disperse groups with tear gas.
People in yellow vests marching yesterday near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, to protest against President Emmanuel Macron's economic policies. Tear gas was fired at small groups of protesters in brief clashes with riot police near the Champs-Elysees,
People in yellow vests marching yesterday near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, to protest against President Emmanuel Macron's economic policies. Tear gas was fired at small groups of protesters in brief clashes with riot police near the Champs-Elysees, while hundreds more marched in splintered groups in several neighbourhoods and 85 were arrested by midday, according to a Paris police official.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • Thousands of protesters took to the streets of French cities yesterday in the fifth weekend of nationwide demonstrations against Mr Emmanuel Macron's government, despite calls to hold off after a gun attack in Strasbourg earlier last week.

In Paris, police were out in force to contain possible outbursts of violence. But several major stores, such as the Galeries Lafayette, were open to welcome Christmas shoppers.

Numbers were down, compared with Saturday last week, a police source said.

Tear gas was fired at small groups of protesters in brief clashes with riot police near the Champs-Elysees.

Close by, a handful of topless activists from the feminist protest group Femen faced security forces a few metres away from the Elysee Palace, the President's residence.

The "yellow vest" movement started in mid-November with protests at junctions and roundabouts against fuel tax increases, but quickly became a wider mobilisation against Mr Macron's economic policies.

"Last time, we were here for taxes," a 28-year-old called Jeremy told the Agence France-Presse as he joined others gathering in the freezing cold on the Champs-Elysees in the morning.

"This is for the institutions: We want more direct democracy," he said, adding that people needed to "shout to make themselves heard".

Successive weekends of protests in Paris have led to vandalism and violent clashes with security forces.

Forty-four-year-old Loic Bollay, marching on the Champs-Elysees in a yellow vest, said the protests were more subdued than in previous weeks, but the movement would go on until the demonstrators' grievances were addressed.

"Since the Strasbourg attack, it is calmer, but I think next Saturday and the following Saturdays... it will come back."

The Interior Minister said around 69,000 police were active yesterday, with a reinforced presence in the cities of Toulouse, Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne.

A police source told Reuters that some 16,000 protesters had been counted by noon in France, excluding Paris, compared with 22,000 at the same time on Dec 8.

In Paris, where hundreds of protesters marched in splintered groups in several neighbourhoods, 85 were arrested by midday, according to a Paris police official.

President Macron called for a return to calm in France after nearly a month of protests by the so-called "yellow vest" movement against his government's policies.

The demonstrations have hit growth and caused widespread disruption.

In a televised address to the nation last Monday, he announced wage rises for the poorest workers and tax cuts for pensioners in further concessions meant to end the movement, but many said they would maintain pressure.

The government, as well as several unions and opposition politicians, called on protesters to stay off the streets yesterday, after four people were killed in a gun attack at a Christmas market in the historic city of Strasbourg. The gunman was found and shot dead by police last Thursday.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner criticised attacks by "yellow vest" protesters on the police at a time when the terror threat remains high in France after a string of atrocities since 2015.

"I find it inadmissible that today, we are applauding our police and then tomorrow, some people think it's okay to go and throw stones at them," Mr Castaner said last Friday.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 16, 2018, with the headline ''Yellow vests' hit French streets in fifth weekend of protests'. Print Edition | Subscribe