Violence subsides during 19th weekend of Yellow Vest demonstrations in France
PARIS – French security forces fanned out across Paris and other cities Saturday as the country faced a 19th weekend of Yellow Vest demonstrations, following a surge of violence last week that caught officials by surprise after months of dwindling numbers and calmer protests.
Though sporadic clashes erupted late in the day, violence dropped Saturday as protesters marched peacefully in the French capital and elsewhere.
Nearly 6,000 police officers were on the streets of Paris, especially around the Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe, which have become the focus of protests and where officials this past week banned demonstrations.
Christophe Castaner, France’s Interior minister, said Saturday evening that 5,000 people had demonstrated in the capital and 40,500 nationwide. He said that 65,000 police officers and gendarmes had been deployed across France, making 233 arrests.
“Our instructions of firmness were followed and made it possible to maintain order and avoid outbursts,” he said.
Didier Lallement, the new chief of the Paris police – his predecessor was fired after last weekend’s violence – said Saturday that police took more proactive steps to “immediately put a stop to violence or destruction.”
In Paris, the police stationed dozens of vans, water cannons and armored vehicles on the Champs-Elysees, and few protesters challenged them. Instead, most of the Yellow Vests marched on a preapproved route from southern Paris up to the Sacre-Coeur cathedral. The Yellow Vest demonstrations, set off in November by an increase in fuel taxes, are named after the high-visibility safety vests that all French drivers must have in their cars.
Anger about the fuel tax increase – which was suspended – snowballed into an expression of much broader discontent against President Emmanuel Macron, his pro-business economic policies, his sweeping reform agenda and what critics call his 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, sometimes with clashes between riot police and Yellow Vests or more radical agitators, the number of protesters has dwindled to a small fraction of the more than 250,000 who demonstrated across the country in the movement’s early days.
Last weekend, shopkeepers on the Champs-Elysees 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 Macron’s government under renewed pressure to step up security.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Monday that 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.
Yellow Vest protesters chant against President Emmanuel Macron and his government in front of Sacre-Coeur cathedral Saturday in Paris, France.