PARIS: French riot police fired tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon at “yellow vest” protesters trying to breach security cordons on the Champs Elysees boulevard in Paris on Saturday ahead of a third rally against high fuel prices.
Police said 24 people had been arrested amid concerns that violent far-right and far-left groups were infiltrating the “yellow vests” movement, a spontaneous popular rebellion against diesel tax hikes and the high cost of living.
For more than two weeks, the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) have blocked roads in protests across France, posing one of the largest and most sustained challenges Emmanuel Macron has faced in his 18-month-old presidency.
Several hundred yellow vests converged under the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs Elysees and sat down to sing La Marseillaise, France’s national anthem, and chanting, “Macron Resign!”
A week ago thousands of protesters, who have no leader and have largely organised themselves online, converged on Paris for the first time, turning the Champs Elysees into a battle zone as they clashed with police firing tear gas and water cannon.
“We’re worried that small groups of rioters that aren’t yellow vests will infiltrate (Saturday’s demonstration) to fight security forces and challenge the authority of the state,” said Denis Jacob, Secretary General of the Alternative Police union.
“Given the high level of security around the Champs the fear is thugs will go to other places.”
Officials said they expected some 5,000 police and gendarmes in Paris, up from about 3,000 last Saturday. Another 5,000 will be deployed across France for other yellow vests protests.
Workmen erected metal barriers and plywood boards on the glass-fronted facades of restaurants and boutiques lining Paris’s most famous boulevard. The Champs Elysees will be closed to traffic and pedestrians funnelled through checkpoints.
“There’s a lot of incitement on social media and we are expecting excess and violence,” David Michaux of the UNSA Police union told Reuters, adding that far-right and far-left groups were expected.
Three formal demonstrations were planned across Paris on Saturday, including the “yellow vests”, a union protest against unemployment and a separate rally against racism.
For now, the “yellow vests” – who take their name from the high-visibility jackets all motorists in France must carry in their vehicles – enjoy widespread public support.
When they began, the protests caught Macron off-guard just as he was trying to counter a plunge in popularity, with his approval at barely 20%.
His unyielding response has exposed him to charges of being out of touch with ordinary people.