France Braces for 19th Weekend of ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests

France Braces for 19th Weekend of ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests


PARIS — French security forces were deployed across Paris and other cities on Saturday as the country braced for a 19th weekend of “Yellow Vest” demonstrations, following a surge of violence last weekend that caught the authorities by surprise after months of dwindling numbers and calmer protests.

Nearly 6,000 police officers were out on the streets of Paris, especially around the Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe, areas that have become the focus of months of protests and where the authorities this past week banned demonstrations. The areas around the National Assembly and the Élysée presidential palace were also closed off.

As of early afternoon, according to the news agency Agence France-Presse, the police in Paris outnumbered the Yellow Vests there almost by two to one, with the Interior Ministry estimating 3,100 protesters in the capital and 8,300 nationwide.

Protests were also banned in areas of other cities like Bordeaux, Toulouse and Nice, where President Xi Jinping of China, who is on a tour of Europe, is expected to stay on Sunday after a dinner with President Emmanuel Macron.

Didier Lallement, the new chief of the Paris police — his predecessor was fired after last weekend’s violence — told reporters on Saturday that police forces on the ground would be more “proactive” in order to “immediately put a stop to violence or destruction.”

At midday, the streets were mostly calm, as few protesters appeared to have come to the Champs-Élysées and small groups were evacuated from the banned perimeter in Nice. Some headed to the Trocadéro, an esplanade across the River Seine from the Eiffel Tower, where a sit-in was planned.

Anger about the fuel tax increase — which was suspended — snowballed into an expression of much broader and more deeply rooted discontent against Mr. Macron, his pro-business economic policies, his sweeping reform agenda and what critics call his occasionally abrasive style of governing. Demands include higher taxation for the rich, more measures to support the purchasing power of the lower middle class, and the creation of a popular referendum mechanism.

But after months of ritual gatherings every Saturday in Paris and other cities around France, sometimes with clashes between riot police and Yellow Vests or more radical agitators, the number of protesters has dwindled to a fraction of the more than 250,000 who demonstrated across the country in the movement’s early days.

Last weekend, shopkeepers on the Champs-Élysées who had grown accustomed to shutting their stores and boarding them up had let their guard down and opened up as usual. But in a burst of violence, protesters smashed windows, looted stores and set a bank on fire, putting Mr. Macron’s government under renewed pressure to step up security.

France’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, said on Monday that the authorities would ban protests in “areas that have been most targeted” if they became aware of “extremist elements” that intended to vandalize them, and that fines for attending banned demonstrations would increase.

Most controversially, the government said that police forces would be supported by the military to help secure cities where protests were planned.

Mr. Macron’s opponents pounced, calling the move a dangerous incursion of the military into domestic law enforcement. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, said on Friday that it was “a reckless and dangerous decision, with consequences that could be very risky.” He added, “A soldier’s job is not that of a policeman.”

But the government stressed that the soldiers — part of the approximately 7,000 who patrol and protect important areas like train stations as part of France’s antiterrorism strategy — would not be stationed near demonstration areas and would not make contact with protesters.

Instead, the soldiers would replace police officers currently guarding sensitive sites, freeing them up to handle the protests, the government said.

The Yellow Vests are united by anger against Mr. Macron but have struggled to channel their frustration, spontaneously organizing online but rejecting any formal structure or leadership. A few have announced bids to run in the upcoming European parliamentary elections, but they are not expected to make much headway.

Some, partly satisfied by economic concessions made by Mr. Macron last year, or tired by the continuing demonstrations, have stopped protesting.

In his bid to overcome the Yellow Vest crisis, Mr. Macron also held a weekslong “great national debate” to let people express their grievances. Tens of thousands have done so online, in special town hall registers and in meetings across the country.

But a small minority of protesters — 20,000 to 30,000 nationwide in recent weeks — have stuck with the Saturday ritual, attracting increasingly radical and sometimes violent crowds that have targeted symbols of the government or of affluence.

Their anger has also been fueled by what critics call an excessive use of force by the French police, most notably the use of rubber projectiles that have wounded dozens of protesters.

Opinion polls after last weekend’s protests showed that while support or sympathy for the Yellow Vests and their cause was still at roughly 50 percent, that figure had decreased, with a significantly lower tolerance for violence.



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