Po­lice flood into Paris to con­tain the gilets jaunes

The Observer - - Front Page - Kim Will­sher

French se­cu­rity forces con­tained fears of a fourth week­end of ri­ot­ing by ex­trem­ist gilets jaunes in Paris with a change of tac­tics in­clud­ing a mas­sive show of strength.

About 8,000 po­lice and gen­darmes re­fused to al­low the gilets jaunes to gain the up­per hand, as they had the pre­vi­ous week, by at­tempt­ing to filter out trou­ble­mak­ers be­fore they could act. They put parts of the city into lock­down be­fore dawn and car­ried out wide­spread stop-and-search op­er­a­tions. Plain­clothes of­fi­cers pin­pointed ex­trem­ist el­e­ments and made hun­dreds of “pre-emp­tive ar­rests”.

Small groups of gilets jaunes from the ex­trem­ist fringe of the grass­roots move­ment suc­ceeded in play­ing cat-and-mouse with se­cu­rity forces, but were re­peat­edly pushed back by po­lice us­ing wa­ter can­non, mounted of­fi­cers and ar­moured ve­hi­cles.

The gov­ern­ment de­ployed a force of 89,000 po­lice and gen­darmes across France. Out­side the cap­i­tal, protests passed off mainly peace­fully.

In a change of tac­tics from last week, when Paris saw the worst vi­o­lence for more than 50 years, po­lice and gen­darmes chose to di­rectly con­front trou­ble­mak­ing demon­stra­tors.

Stung by crit­i­cism that they lost con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion last week, politi­cians and po­lice were re­ac­tive and mo­bile, de­ter­mined not to let casseurs – van­dals and hooli­gans – have their

way again. Yes­ter­day morn­ing whole dis­tricts of the city were put into lock­down, with roads sealed off in an ef­fort to con­tain pro­test­ers to the Champs-Élysées.

As the day wore on, how­ever, groups of casseurs had po­lice rac­ing to deal with fires and bar­ri­cades. Of­fi­cers re­sponded with wa­ter can­non and tear­gas.

Break­away groups, young men dressed in black and wear­ing masks and scarves, dodged the se­cu­rity forces and tear­gas to build bar­ri­cades and set fires around the city.

Po­lice sources said they be­lieved the “real” gilets jaunes had again been hi­jacked by ex­treme el­e­ments, in­clud­ing ul­tras from the left and right, and an­ar­chist “black bloc” groups. In other parts of the coun­try, the “real” gilets jaunes, as the French me­dia now calls them, seemed de­ter­mined to make their com­plaints peace­fully.

The gilets jaunes be­gan as a grass­roots move­ment that grew out of wide­spread dis­con­tent with a new eco-tax on petrol and diesel, seen as hit­ting those liv­ing and work­ing out­side met­ro­pol­i­tan ar­eas where there is no pub­lic trans­port. In the past three weeks the move­ment has grown to in­clude a range of di­verse de­mands, in­clud­ing lower taxes, higher pen­sions and an im­prove­ment in or­di­nary French peo­ple’s spend­ing power.

Last week Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron an­nounced that his gov­ern­ment would drop the eco-tax, but pro­test­ers say the mea­sure is too lit­tle, too late. The bat­tle has pitched peo­ple in the coun­try­side who feel they are ig­nored against a Parisian “elite” seen to have all the priv­i­leges.

The in­te­rior min­istry claimed that there were 31,000 pro­test­ers across the coun­try, po­lice made more than 1,000 ar­rests and al­most 500 peo­ple were held in cus­tody; 55 peo­ple were in­jured, in­clud­ing three po­lice of­fi­cers.

As night fell, and many “real” gilets jaunes made their way home, po­lice were gear­ing up for vi­o­lence, but con­sid­ered the day a rel­a­tive suc­cess.

Marc, 31, a farm­worker from Nor­mandy, said he’d “had enough of pay­ing high taxes”, yet he wasn’t plan­ning to get into a fight with po­lice. “But there’s some­thing not right here: if we demon­strate peace­fully, the gov­ern­ment ig­nores us. If some peo­ple burn cars and at­tack the po­lice, the gov­ern­ment gives in. What does that tell us?”

Pho­to­graph by Alain Jo­card/AFP

A riot of­fi­cer aims a flash­ball gun at gilets jaunes pro­test­ers near the Champs-Élysées in Paris yes­ter­day.

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