‘Yellow Vests’ descend on Paris as police arrest hundreds and fire tear gas

PARIS — Thousands of demonstrators descended on Paris early Saturday, as residents braced for more mayhem and police turned out in force, blocking access to many areas and monuments that had been the focus last week of France’s worst urban violence in decades.

Police sporadically fired tear gas to disperse crowds of so-called Yellow Vests protesters on the capital’s main artery, the Champs-Élysées, where nearly all shops and restaurants were shuttered as a precaution to smashing and looting. Officers also used a water cannon on one tributary street.

The scenes were punctuated by shouts of “Macron Resign!” — a reference to President Emmanuel Macron, who has become a target of anger — impromptu bursts of the French national anthem, “The Marseillaise,” and curses spat at police and members of the media.

Police quickly swept up and arrested more than 700 people, many as they were searched for items like vests of gas masks on tributary streets, even before they could arrive at the main protest. Similar tactics were used by police at smaller, copycat protests in neighboring Belgium.

A planned climate march, which was supposed to be held not far from some of the protest areas, was moved to another part of Paris.

In Paris, a line of eight police vehicles blocked access to the Arc de Triomphe, a quasi-sacred national symbol that was defaced last weekend. Police also hemmed in demonstrators at the other end of the Champs-Élysées, near the seat of the French presidency and the Place de la Concorde.

Police detachments were set up at all major central Paris intersections. Most monuments and museums were closed, even those far from the protest areas, including the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. Residents of many wealthier neighborhoods left the city as a precaution.

The government has been warning of a potential increase in violence from the vandals or “casseurs,” literally breakers in French, who habitually attach themselves to streets protests.

There was fear on Saturday that those more hard-core and violent elements would hijack the Yellow Vests demonstrations, whose ranks were initially filled by members of the working poor from rural areas dismayed by a planned increase in a gasoline tax. Their demonstrations were named for the fluorescent yellow hazard vests adopted by the protesters as a sign of their distress.

The French government eventually suspended the planned gas tax increase before canceling it outright. But that did not quell the outrage, which has morphed into much broader anger at Macron’s economic and social policies, and France’s declining living standards.

The motivations of the protesters have not changed from previous weekends, nor has their determination.

“We drove all night,” said Julien Lezer, an electrician from the Var region, on the Mediterranean. “We don’t agree with the current system anymore; it doesn’t represent us. It’s not in the regions that things change; it’s in Paris. It’s when the people from the regions go to Paris that the politicians listen.”

Axelle Cavalheiro, who works with disabled people, came from the Ain, near Lyon. “We are overtaxed; there are taxes on everything, gas,” he complained. “At the Élysée,” he said referring to the presidential palace, “they spend 300,000 euros on carpeting, 10,000 a month for the hairdresser.”

Since the demonstrations began four weeks ago, four people have died and more than 700 have been wounded. Videos of police being attacked by protesters and of police violence against demonstrators have fueled more tensions on social media.

The number of protesters nationwide has dwindled since the demonstrations began; more than 280,000 people turned out on Nov. 17, and less than half of that on Dec. 1, according to French authorities.

But the protests have increasingly centered on Paris, where each Saturday has become more violent.

Authorities have been bracing all week. The government voiced concerns about the potential for extreme violence but also appealed for calm, as have politicians from across the political spectrum.

About 89,000 member of the security forces were deployed across the country on Saturday, including 8,000 in Paris, compared with 4,600 a week earlier. In a rare step, the gendarmerie — one of the country’s two national police forces — deployed 12 armored vehicles in the French capital, a sign of authorities’ nervousness.

Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, said on Friday that he was expecting “only a couple of thousand protesters in Paris,” but he warned that they could be “ultraviolent.”

He said that police would adopt a more mobile strategy than last week, when authorities created a perimeter around the Champs-Élysées that kept police forces static and prevented them from pursuing rioters.

“Faced with systematic and organized violence, our forces will respond with firmness,” Castaner said.

Precautions were taken across the city. Food markets in the protest areas were called off, high-end department stores were closed, and the city’s two opera houses canceled Saturday’s shows. More than 35 subway stops were also closed throughout the city.

City workers removed over 2,000 metal gratings, construction barriers and other items to prevent them from being used as weapons or as barricades, and dozens of city buildings like gymnasiums, cultural centers and stadiums were closed.

City officials also recommended that people move their vehicles and bicycles away from protest areas.

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, said at a news conference on Friday that “the right to demonstrate is in no way the right to assault and to break,” and she called upon everyone to show “caution, calm and composure.”

“It is obviously an immense sadness to see our city partially locked down, but your security is our absolute priority,” she said. “Saturday, take care of Paris, because Paris belongs to all the French.”

Elsewhere in France, authorities also took preventive steps to avoid violence.

The top French soccer league postponed six games across the country, including in Paris, Toulouse, Angers and Nîmes. Museums were closed in Bordeaux, and the city of Lyon took extra security measures for its annual Light Festival.

Tensions have worsened in the past few days as other groups in French society have latched onto the unrest to air their own grievances and begin new protests. Among them are farmers, who are planning to demonstrate all of next week.

High school students protesting the government’s education reforms have drawn the most attention so far.

Police have clashed repeatedly with students blocking schools and burning cars or trash cans, and several students have been seriously injured.

On Friday, politicians, rights advocates and social media users were outraged after a video emerged showing dozens of high school students kneeling on the ground, hands on their heads and surrounded by police.

The Yellow Vest movement has no centralized leadership, and so it was unclear what would happen on Saturday as thousands discussed their options in myriad Facebook groups and comment threads.

Some encouraged protesters not to march in Paris and to protest locally instead, while others insisted that only protests in the capital would force the government to cave in.

Macron, who has been criticized for remaining silent, is expected to publicly address the protests next week.

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