Tens of thousands of France’s Yellow Vest protesters rallied around the country again on Saturday as the movement tries to rebuild momentum after declining turnouts in recent weeks and as public support wanes.
The ninth weekend of demonstrations came days before President Emmanuel Macron launches a national debate intended to dispel the anger exposed by the recent violent protests, without derailing the reforms he insists France needs.
About 8,000 people participated in Paris and 84,000 rallied elsewhere in the country on Saturday, Agence France Presse reported, citing figures from the Interior Ministry. Last week, the Interior Ministry estimated 50,000 protesters nationwide at the end of the day.
Even though turnout at recent protests had declined, police braced for more demonstrators and more violence this Saturday. The government mobilized 5,000 police officers in the capital and 80,000 nationwide. Various streets near government buildings in central Paris were closed off, and police searched people on roads and trains heading to the capital.
Visiting the western French city of Rouen early Saturday, junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said police would have zero tolerance for violence.
“If there are excesses here, or anywhere in France, we will have an extremely firm response,” Nunez said on Twitter.
There were fewer clashes and less violence than in recent weeks. In Paris, television showed protesters in yellow vests marching peacefully on a route running east-west through the center, starting at the French Finance Ministry and ending at the top of the Champs-Elysees. There, at the Arc de Triomphe, police responded with tear gas to projectiles thrown from the crowd, but the protesters dispersed early in the evening.
“In Paris, responsibility won over the temptation to confrontation,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said in a statement to AFP. “Now is the time for the big national debate, which begins Tuesday and should be able to take place in a calm climate.”
Following the call of social media accounts used by the Yellow Vests, some protesters avoided Paris and headed to the central city of Bourges, expecting fewer police. Local authorities have banned protests in the center of the city, known for its Gothic cathedral. There were few arrests and clashes between police and protesters.
In London, hundreds of anti-austerity protesters wearing yellow vests rallied outside the Houses of Parliament. Crowds marched to a rally in Trafalgar Square, where politicians, political activists and trade unionists spoke, the U.K. Press Association reported.
National organizer Ramona McCartney said the protest was an attempt to “take back the political space taken up by Brexit,” ahead of Parliament’s planned vote on a withdrawal bill on Tuesday. Protesters wanted to show “solidarity with the left and working class in France by wearing the yellow vests today,” she told PA.
The continued protests and the planned national debate come as a poll shows the French are increasingly turning away from their leaders. Democracy in France isn’t working well for 70 per cent of respondents, according to the annual Opinionway poll, up 9 percentage points from a year ago. When asked what they feel about politics, 37 per cent said “distrust” and 32 per cent said “disgust.” Only 2 per cent of those polled answered “respect.”
Macron promised a “Great National Debate” on Nov. 27 as he canceled some tax increases and raised some welfare payments in an effort to subdue the Yellow-Vest movement, which began to protest higher gasoline taxes before morphing into a general clamor about the cost of living and the state of democracy in France.
Macron’s overtures and the violence that accompanied many of protests has eaten away at the once overwhelming public support for the Yellow Vests. An Elabe poll released Thursday put support for the movement at 60 per cent, down 10 points from a month ago, a decline echoed in other polls.
The protests have rattled the French economy, with retailers reporting steep falls in December sales and the national tourism promotion board saying tourist arrivals dropped by between 5 per cent and 10 per cent. Consumer confidence has slumped to a four-year low and the government estimates that the disruption in December stripped around 0.1 percentage point off fourth-quarter economic growth.
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