PARIS: French police put on a massive show of force on Saturday to prevent another demonstration by the gilets jaunes from spiralling into violence at the end of what could prove a defining week for Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.
Nearly 1,000 arrests were made across the country, with the majority in Paris, during the fourth straight weekend of protests by the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, a movement which began in response to fuel tax increases but has quickly swollen into a campaign against Macron.
More than 31,000 people came out to block roads throughout France, according to government figures, with more than 8,000 in Paris. On the first weekend of protest, more than 280,000 people had been on the streets.
Some 89,000 police and gendarmes, equipped with water cannons and armoured vehicles, were deployed across the country to prevent a repeat of last weekend’s demonstrations, which erupted into the worst riot in the capital for 50 years, with 100 cars and several buildings burnt.
Paris looked like a ghost town on Saturday, with museums, department stores and the metro closed as riot police braced to meet “yellow vest” protesters in the capital and other French cities in a fourth weekend of confrontation over living costs.
As of Friday, the French retail federation said the cost of the protests to its members was €1bn. The Arc de Triomphe was ringed by police after it was the scene of pitched battle the weekend before.
Many shops were boarded up to avoid looting and street furniture and construction site materials have been removed to prevent them from being used as projectiles.
“I hope they don’t make it as far as here,” said Anthony, a fruit stall vendor in the residential left bank, who declined to give his surname. He said 11 other open-air food markets across the city had been closed.
CHALLENGE TO MACRON
Protesters, using social media, have billed the weekend as “Act IV” in a dramatic challenge to Macron and his policies.
The protests, named after the high-visibility safety jackets French motorists have to keep in their cars, erupted in November over the squeeze on household budgets caused by fuel taxes.
Demonstrations have since swelled into a broad, sometimes violent rebellion against Macron, a challenge made more difficult to handle since the movement has no formal leader.
Authorities say the protests have been hijacked by far-right and anarchist elements bent on violence and stirring up social unrest in a direct affront to Macron and the security forces.
“We have prepared a robust response,” Interior Minister Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told online news site Brut on Saturday. He called on peaceful protesters not to get mixed up with “hooligans”.
“The troublemakers can only be effective when they disguise themselves as yellow vests. Violence is never a good way to get what you want. Now is the time for discussion,” he said.
Macron, whose popularity is at a low ebb according to polls, has been forced into making the first major U-turn of his presidency by abandoning a fuel tax.
Despite the climbdown, the “yellow vests” continue to demand more concessions from the government, including lower taxes, a higher minimum wage, lower energy costs, better retirement benefits and even Macron’s resignation.
One of them, Eric Drouet, a truck driver, called on protesters to storm into the Elysee presidential palace. An Elysee official has said intelligence suggested that some protesters would come to the capital “to vandalize and to kill”.
Macron, who has not spoken in public since he condemned last Saturday’s disturbances while at the G20 summit in Argentina, will address the nation early next week, his office said.