France: Tens of thousands of police mobilize for 9th ‘yellow vests’ protests

More than 5,000 police officers were on the streets of the French capital on Saturday to monitor the ninth weekend of street protests by the “gilets
jaunes ” (yellow vests) movement
. They also had armored vehicles, dogs, and mounted officers stationed through Paris

National police chief Eric Morvan told France Inter radio that he expected turnout nationwide to be similar to protests in mid-December, when more than 60,000 people took to the streets across the country.

The protests, named after the high-visibility jackets French drivers carry in their cars, have repeatedly witnessed clashes between demonstrators and police since they began in November in response to a fuel tax hike that President Emmanuel Macron has not said he is willing to reconsider

At around 11 a.m., a few thousand demonstrators set off from near the Finance Ministry intending to make their way to the Champs-Elysees. A few scuffles broke out between protesters and police near the Arc de Triomphe.

Overnight, police had arrested 24 people in connection with the protests for carrying weapons.

  • A yellow vest demonstrator has a picture of Macron on it with the word, 'dictator' under his face (Reuters/C. Platiau)

    A timeline of France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests

    Mad at Macron

    Since his election in May 2016, French President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity has fallen steadily thanks to unpopular financial policies, such as ending a wealth tax, and his public manner, which many see as aloof and arrogant. But it was his planned fuel-tax hike, an environmental measure, that really kicked things off. An online video saying Macron is “hounding drivers” goes viral in October.

  • Police confront yellow vest protesters in Antibes, France (Reuters/E. Gaillard)

    A timeline of France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests

    Nationwide protests

    Online outrage is soon transferred to France’s streets as more than 290,000 demonstrators don the high-visibility vests that drivers are required by law to keep in their cars. They block roads nationwide. The protests, coordinated via social media, have no structural organization, lack visible leadership and disavow union or party ties. At least one person is killed and more than 150 are arrested.

  • A yellow-vest protester holds up a flare on the Champs-Elysees (Reuters/B. Tessier)

    A timeline of France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests

    Clashes and destruction

    The Macron government says it won’t back down, and further protests are scheduled. On November 24, some 100,000 people protest nationwide, with 8,000 in Paris, where violence and destruction breaks out. Police clash with protesters on the Champs-Elysees (above), using water canon and tear gas. Over €1 million ($1.1 million) in damage is reported.

  • Macron presses his lips together and looks down as he stands next to a guard (Getty Images/AFP/B. Guay)

    A timeline of France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests

    Cracking under pressure

    The “yellow vest” protests are a massive problem for Macron. He initially refuses to budge on the fuel tax, then proposes adjustment in case of rising oil costs. Not satisfied, protesters hit French streets again on December 1, with violence and vandalism erupting in Paris. Macron calls a crisis meeting the next day and on December 5, amid threats of more protests, Macron ditches the fuel tax.

  • A man in a gas mask with a french flag stands in front of burning debris in Paris (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Mattiale Pictorium)

    A timeline of France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests

    Paris on lockdown

    Macron, however, refuses to reinstitute the wealth tax and dismisses protesters’ calls for his resignation. The “yellow vests” defy easy categorization, as protesters include both far-left and far-right supporters who opposed Macron’s presidency bid. On December 8, nationwide violent protests take place again. Armored vehicles roll down Paris streets as much of the city goes on lockdown.

  • Macron sits at an elaborate desk and holds out his hands as he gives a televised address (Reuters/L. Marin)

    A timeline of France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests

    Speech to the nation

    On December 10, Macron responds to the 4-week-old protests with a televised speech to the nation from the Elysee Palace. More than 21 million viewers tune in as Macron strikes a conciliatory tone, saying he accepts his “share of responsibility” for the crisis. He introduces new financial measures, including a minimum-wage hike, tax-free overtime pay and tax exemptions for low-income retirees.

  • Two protesters in yellow vests cling to one another and cry out as police stand in the background (Reuters/Y. Herman)

    A timeline of France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests

    Neighboring discontent

    In the meantime, the “yellow vest” protests jump beyond France’s borders to other countries. In Belgium, demonstrators expressed anger over high taxes and food prices, as well as low wages and pensions. Anti-riot police responded with water cannon after protesters threw rocks at the prime minister’s office. In Germany, protesters also turned out in Berlin and Munich.

  • Protesters in yellow vests stand in front of the Arc d'Triomphe (Reuters/C. Hartmann)

    A timeline of France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests

    NYE calm

    Protesters in France continue into late December, though turnout numbers fall. That doesn’t discourage unofficial but high-profile protest leaders, who use social media to encourage continued demonstrations. On New Year’s Eve, many revelers wear yellow vests as they take part in peaceful, “festive” gatherings in Paris.

  • A protester jumps on a car in Paris (Reuters/G. Fuentes)

    A timeline of France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests

    No end in 2019

    Any hopes for calm in the new year were quickly dashed when on January 5 a fresh round of nationwide protests saw some 50,000 take part, an increase in turnout after the holiday lull but less than initial December gatherings. In Paris, some protesters clashed with police, setting fire to motorcycles and storming government buildings. Macron condemned the violence, saying, “Justice will be done.”

  • Yellow Vest women protesters during a demonstration of the 'Yellow Vests Women' in Paris

    A timeline of France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests

    ‘Reclaiming’ yellow vest protests

    Several hundred women wearing yellow vests marched through Paris on January 6 in an effort to restore a peaceful image to the “yellow vest” protests. At one point during the march, the women protesters fell to their knees in a minute of silence for the 10 people killed and many others injured since the start of the movement.

    Author: Cristina Burack

A small town in France

The central French town of Bourges became the center of attention before the weekend kicked off after one of the yellow vest organizers told followers on Facebook the town was easy to reach and had a small police presence. By Friday evening, 3,000 people had indicated that they would be heading for Bourges, with a further 13,000 saying they were interested.

Prefect Catherine Ferrier banned gatherings in the town center in response. “It has nothing to do with previous peaceful marches that took place in the city of Bourges,” Ferrier stated.

Bourges’ mayor, Pascal Blanc, has ordered traffic be restricted in the city center and the city hall and museums to be closed on Saturday.

Warning against violence

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner warned peaceful protesters that they would be “complicit” if they attended marches that turned violent.

New laws, including a register of rioters  similar to those used to control football hooligans, are being planned.

However, without a central leadership or decision-making body, protesters might not concentrate in Bourges. Last month, a protest apparently planned for Versailles was quickly relocated to central Paris.

A gilets jaunes protest in Paris last weekend

A gilets jaunes protest in Paris last weekend

Call for public debate

Meanwhile, Macron’s “great national debate” of town hall meetings, aimed at placating the protestors, is scheduled to start on Tuesday. Macron suggested the idea as a solution to complaints that citizens lack a say in debating and setting the political agenda. 

Ecological transition, public finances, democracy, and the state’s organization are intended to be the main themes of the consultations and, in a practice dating back to before the French Revolution, “grievance notebooks” have been placed in town halls for citizens to make complaints or suggestions. 

But the initiative has already run into trouble after it was reported that the head of the national debates commission, Chantal Jouanno, was being paid €14,666 ($16,820) per month. She withdrew her participation, leaving the government to reorganize the discussions.

Sign for a motorway in Paris

Motorway tolls in France can be too expensive for some workers

The outlook for the debates appears dim, with polling suggesting many people are uninterested in taking part in the town hall meetings or skeptical of how useful they will be.

Since November, protesters’ grievances have broadened beyond the fuel tax increase, which Macron eventually canceled, to include the president’s alleged elitism and the precarious living standards for many people across the country.

jm,es/rc (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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