On the barricades with the gilets jaunes
French security forces will deploy armoured vehicles in Paris today in anticipation of more violence and rioting by fringe elements of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement.
A government official said 89,000 police and gendarmes would be mobilised across the country, 8,000 of them in the French capital, as well as a dozen VBRG armoured vehicles, rarely used in cities..
“We are facing people who are not there to demonstrate, but are there to smash things up and we want to make sure we’re not leaving them to do what they want,” the prime minister, Édouard Philippe, said. Paris went into lockdown yesterday, as the city prepared for a fourth weekend of protests. Banks, shops, restaurants and businesses rushed to board up their premises to protect windows from looters.
At Place de la Bastille, which is undergoing pedestrianisation, workers cleared away metal and concrete barriers and carried off anything that could be thrown. Staff at the Bastille Opéra were reported to have locked the orchestra’s instruments somewhere safe fearing an assault on the building.
Parisiens, even those far from the Champs-Élysées, Arc de Triomphe and Place de la Concorde – the scenes of violent clashes in previous weeks – were advised not to leave dustbins on the streets for fear they could be set alight.
The preparations come after the city experienced the worst unrest in 50 years last Saturday as groups of casseurs (hooligans) confronted riot police, torched vehicles and looted shops.
The gilet jaunes movement started as a protest against a proposed rise in diesel and petrol tax, and takes its name from the yellow hi-vis jackets motorists must carry in their cars. It grew into a wider anti-government movement with diverse demands, many associated with living standards. Moderate factions have held peaceful protests across the country.
The protesters’ anger is directed at a president accused of being out of touch and a government seen to represent a political elite with no idea how la France d’en bas – the less well-off – live.
The association of rural mayors has asked local councillors to keep town halls open to allow “each citizen to verbally express their anger”.
Ministers have repeated calls for calm and requested protesters stay away from the capital, as have union leaders, opposition parties and Roman Catholic clergy.
French media reported that Emmanuel Macron, had refused a demand to meet “moderate” gilets jaunes at the Élysée. Benjamin Cauchy, an unofficial spokesman, said they had asked to see the president because “insurrection is at the gates of France and we don’t want any deaths this weekend”. The Élysée responded that the prime minister’s door “remained open”.
Macron has been silent since Wednesday evening when he performed a surprising volte-face on the fuel tax, announcing it was being cancelled, hours after Philippe had told the Assemblée Nationale it was being frozen and “might” be abandoned. Macron is expected to give a televised address at the beginning of next week.
Efforts to prepare for what gilets jaunes demonstrators are calling Act IV of their action is hampered by the grassroots movement having no formal organisation or leadership, posing a challenge to the French authorities.
The insurrection is being further fuelled on social media websites by conspiracy theories and fake news, including false claims Macron is “selling France” to the United Nations, World Bank or other international organisations planning to let millions of migrants take over the country.
The French government has also deployed police to deal with high school student protests. A video showing police forcing students to kneel in rows with their arms behind their backs has caused shock and further criticism of the government.
The education minister, JeanMichel Blanquer, defended the police, saying: “There are shocking images because we are in a climate of exceptional violence.”
High school students protesting in France are made to kneel against the wall by the gendarmerie. Footage of the scene has caused outrage