Paris back to normal after police quell ‘Yellow Vests’ protest

Museums and shops on the Champs-Elysees were to reopen yesterday, as well as the Eiffel Tower and iconic department store Galeries Lafayette

PARIS • The streets of Paris are returning to normal as crews remove debris, after protests by a grassroots movement forced police to re tear gas and water cannons just a week after extremely violent clashes led President Emmanuel Macron’s government to back down on fuel tax increases.

Police arrested 1,700 people nationwide and held 1,200 in custody after containing several late night skirmishes on Saturday. About 179 people were hurt as extreme-right, extreme-left and anarchist elements defied riot forces in Paris, according to the police prefecture. In Paris, at least 920 were arrested with as many as 620 in custody.

“The situation is under control,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said at a press conference on Saturday night. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, at the same briefing, again called for dialogue with the so-called Yellow Vests and said Macron would propose new measures this week “to restore national unity”.

Museums and shops on the Champs-Elysees were to reopen yesterday, as well as the Eiffel Tower and iconic department store Galeries Lafayette.

While the tally of arrests was higher than last Saturday, the violence and number of injured didn’t reach the levels of a week ago when national monuments were trashed and cars burned throughout central Paris. Many arrests were carried out early on Saturday as police conducted searches ahead of the protests, seeking to prevent rioting. Tens of thousands of officers were deployed nationwide.

An estimated 138,000 people took part in the protest across France of which 10,000 were in Paris, according to the Interior Ministry yesterday.

There were also clashes with police in Bordeaux, which continued into the evening, and in Toulouse along with roadblocks on highways including those near Lyon, Clermont-Ferrand and Albertville.

In Paris, protesters were mostly contained to the Champs-Elysees and surrounding avenues, such as avenue Marceau and boulevard de Courcelles, as well as near the Opera district. On boulevard Poissonniere and boulevard Haussmann, some tried to erect barricades, using urban furniture and stones from the pavement, and defying police forces. Rioters looted a golf supply store, making off with clubs they used to smash the windows of bank branches.

By early evening, the ChampsElysees was mostly cleared of demonstrators and some traffic resumed. A few clashes continued around Place de la Republique, which was largely calm earlier in the day.

The violence appeared to have been caused by a mix of radicalised Yellow Vests, as well as unaffiliated anarchists and youths from Paris suburbs. On the Champs-Elysees, many of the more peaceful Yellow Vests chanted for Macron to resign, while the more violent ones saved their vitriol for the police.

For France, it was the fourth straight weekend of nationwide protests. They began last month to fight higher petrol taxes and have now spread to other demands, reflecting complaints about purchasing power and a general dislike of Macron.

A Monster

“The movement has given birth to a monster,” Castaner said last Friday as he detailed security measures at a news conference.

More than 89,000 officers were deployed to maintain order, including 8,000 in Paris where demonstrators a week ago torched cars, fought with riot police and vandalised the Arc de Triomphe. Police in the capital were backed up by a dozen armoured vehicles.

The grassroots movement — named after the vests that all motorists must keep in their cars — has led to sporadic blockades of roads, fuel depots and warehouses since the first “day of action” on Nov 17. It’s organised through social media and has no leadership, but has the support of three-quarters of the French public, polls show.

The movement’s demands have also expanded to higher pensions, an increase in the minimum wage, a repeal of other taxes, the restoration of a wealth tax, a law fixing a maximum salary, and replacing Macron and the National Assembly with a “People’s Assembly”. While political parties have tried to show their support for the movement, the Yellow Vests have rejected any political link.

At first the government dismissed the movement, saying the higher petrol taxes had been compensated by cuts in payroll taxes. Then, it sought to highlight its contradictory demands, which include fewer taxes and better services. As popular support for the movement rose and violence spread, Macron returned from a Group of 20 Summit in Argentina last Sunday to hold a series of emergency meetings that led with scrapping next year’s fuel-tax hikes, a rare retreat for the stubborn 40-year-old. — Bloomberg