Paris un­der siege once more, but mas­sive po­lice show of force keeps the lid on

What the gilets jaunes called ‘Act IV’ of their protest met se­cu­rity forces in no mood to lose con­trol again

The Observer - - News -

Even be­fore the sun had risen on Place de la Bastille, the en­dur­ing sym­bol of the rev­o­lu­tion, France’s se­cu­rity forces were tak­ing no chances.

As members of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protest move­ment en­joyed an early-morn­ing cof­fee in a cafe on the square, po­lice and gen­darmes de­ployed. In the mid­dle of a long line of vans filled with CRS riot po­lice was a dark blue VBRG ar­moured ve­hi­cle, of­ten used in mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions abroad – in­clud­ing Kosovo – but rarely in Paris.

The gilets jaunes car­ried on with their break­fast. “We are not here to cause trou­ble,” said one.

The mas­sive win­dows of a nearby branch of the Banque de France

were en­tirely boarded up, as were other banks, busi­nesses and shops. Some shop­keep­ers had placed gilets jaunes – the high-vis­i­bil­ity vests that all French mo­torists must keep in their ve­hi­cles, and the uni­form of the move­ment – in their win­dows, as a sign of sup­port and a plea not to smash up the store.

Across the city, the pre-dawn lock­down con­tin­ued. On what should have been one of the busiest shop­ping days of the year, a fort­night be­fore Christ­mas, Paris was eerily quiet. The façades of its cel­e­brated depart­ment stores, Ga­leries Lafayette and Prin­temps, were dark, their Christ­mas lights and win­dow dec­o­ra­tions turned off and cov­ered with blinds. Dozens of Métro sta­tions were closed and buses can­celled. More than a dozen mon­u­ments and mu­se­ums were closed, in­clud­ing the Eif­fel Tower and the Lou­vre. Six Ligue 1 foot­ball matches have been can­celled.

On the Champs-Élysées, the gilets jaunes gath­ered for what their un­of­fi­cial lead­ers had de­scribed as Act Four of their ac­tion, call­ing for a fourth week­end of demon­stra­tions. A small group tried to prise up paving stones, but they were a mi­nor­ity and were quickly hauled out of the crowd. Most of the demon­stra­tors were con­tent to shout slo­gans against the pres­i­dent, Em­manuel Macron, wave ban­ners and sing the Mar­seil­laise as they dodged the tear­gas.

As the day wore on, in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent skir­mishes broke out be­tween po­lice and ex­treme el­e­ments of the move­ment, some re­port­edly from the far right and far left. On the grands boule­vards, a group of men, some dressed in black and wear­ing masks and scarves, ripped branches from trees and set them alight and used metal grilles to build a bar­ri­cade across the street. Po­lice used wa­ter can­non to put out the flames and push demon­stra­tors back.

On the Champs-Élysées, an­other group ripped off wooden boards from a large store and set them alight. In many cases plain­clothes of­fi­cers could be seen iden­ti­fy­ing trou­ble­mak­ers, then div­ing into the crowd to haul them out. The first use of tear­gas came just be­fore 10.30am, as po­lice cleared pro­test­ers who had been shout­ing slo­gans against Macron and singing the Mar­seil­laise from a side street and pushed them back on to the Champs-Élysées.

A group of gilets jaunes at­tempted to block the pé­riph­erique, Paris’s ring road, west of the city. Out­side the cap­i­tal, 2,000 gilets jaunes demon­strated in Mar­seille, and there were protests in Greno­ble, Saint-Éti­enne and in the Bel­gian cap­i­tal, Brus­sels.

Politi­cians, po­lice and gen­darmes were des­per­ate to avoid the run­ning bat­tles, torched build­ings and de­struc­tion of last Satur­day – the worst vi­o­lence in cen­tral Paris for at least 50 years – when they were ac­cused of los­ing con­trol.

Tac­tics have changed. Of­fi­cers stopped and searched any­one and ev­ery­one, whether or not they were wear­ing a yellow vest. They emp­tied bags, con­fis­cat­ing face masks that could be worn against tear­gas, hel­mets, ham­mers and any­thing that could be used as a pro­jec­tile, in­clud­ing base­balls and boules. There were also hun­dreds of “pre­ven­ta­tive ar­rests”. By mid­day the in­te­rior min­istry an­nounced that 548 peo­ple had been ar­rested, 272 of them re­manded in cus­tody. On Satur­day last week there had been a total of 412 ar­rests for the whole day.

A group of gilets jaunes from the Au­vergne in cen­tral France, who had made the five-and-a-half-hour jour­ney to the cap­i­tal by coach overnight, seemed lost near the ChampsÉ-lysées, which had been en­tirely sealed off. “We’re here for many rea­sons, but ba­si­cally be­cause we’re fed up. Ev­ery­one’s fed up. The politi­cians ask us to make sac­ri­fices while they do noth­ing,” said one young man.

They in­sisted the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion last week to drop the tax on fuel was too lit­tle, too late. Since then the gilets jaunes have widened their de­mands to in­clude lower taxes, higher wages and more pur­chas­ing power. “The gov­ern­ment is wrong if it thinks that the fuel tax is the only prob­lem. The prob­lem is the cost of liv­ing, re­duced pen­sions … prob­lems we have to deal with ev­ery day.”

Asked if they were afraid the protests would de­gen­er­ate into vi­o­lence, one added: “Wor­ried. Not afraid. We know that po­lice have put on yellow vests and smashed things up just to give the gilets jaunes a bad im­age.”

How did he know? “I saw it on the in­ter­net. They were def­i­nitely po­lice, smash­ing things up.”

Far-right and far-left groups have been ac­cused of whip­ping up the move­ment with fake news spread via so­cial me­dia.

As yes­ter­day wore on, the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to de­ploy 89,000 po­lice and gen­darmes across the coun­try, 8,000 in Paris, along­side a dozen VBRG ar­moured ve­hi­cles, ap­peared to be pay­ing off.

Macron has not spo­ken pub­licly about the un­rest for three weeks but is ex­pected to make a pub­lic state­ment early this week. Élysée of­fi­cials sug­gested the pres­i­dent – the gilets jaunes’ pri­mary tar­get– was anx­ious not to in­flame the sit­u­a­tion by speak­ing be­fore yes­ter­day’s demon­stra­tions.

In an in­ter­view with the Ob­server, Daniel Cohn-Ben­dit, one of the lead­ers of the May 1968 stu­dent ri­ots and one of Macron’s friends and ad­vis­ers, said the pres­i­dent and the gov­ern­ment needed a “com­plete re­set … and a tax rev­o­lu­tion”.

“A Pan­dora’s box has opened, out of which has come the deep bit­ter­ness of part of France. Peo­ple say, ‘you’ve given gifts to the rich and gifts to busi­nesses, but what hap­pens to those liv­ing on pen­sions of €1,200 a month? You’ve given things to those who al­ready have money and noth­ing to us’. The gov­ern­ment has not suc­ceeded in coun­ter­ing this. Now it’s ur­gent, there’s a con­ver­gence of de­mands, the cover has come off the box and ex­ploded.”

Hav­ing been given direc­tions to the Champs-Élysées, the Au­vergne group had one part­ing shot. “Don’t mix us up with the casseurs [van­dals]. They have noth­ing to do with the real gilets jaunes and we’re not here for that.”

Pho­to­graph by Alain Jo­card/ Getty

Po­lice and the gilets jaunes pro­test­ers clash near the Arc de Tri­om­phe yes­ter­day.

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