French ‘yellow vests’ stage 20th week of anti-government protests

Anti-riot policemen walk behind “Yellow vest” protesters during a demonstration as part of a 20th consecutive Saturday of protests called by the ‘yellow vests’ (gilets Jaunes) movement, on March 30, 2019, in Bordeaux, western France. (AFP pic)

PARIS: Tens of thousands of French “yellow vest” demonstrators on Saturday staged their 20th week of anti-government protests despite hotspot bans and a plea from bank chiefs to end damage to branches.

Police in Paris fired teargas to disperse a crowd of hardcore demonstrators at the Trocadero square, overlooking the Eiffel Tower, though most of the marches in the capital were peaceful.

Banners held aloft throughout the country demanded change.

“Enough of capitalism which crushes people and destroys the planet,” was a slogan seen in Montpellier in the south.

“The youth are angry, the old are in misery, let’s change the system,” said another in the northern city of Lille.

According to interior ministry figures, there were 33,700 protesters on the streets nationwide, including 4,000 in the capital.

Those figures were down from the official estimate of 40,500 a week earlier, and a fraction of the numbers who took part when the protests began last November.

The official turnout figures are challenged by the protest organisers each week.

Police had been surprised by a jump in the numbers two weeks ago when they struggled to curb violence by highly-organised demonstrators who smashed shop windows and set fire to newspaper kiosks and a bank in the capital.

This time around, local authorities declared iconic sites such as the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris and the centres of Avignon, Bordeaux and Toulouse in southern France off-limits to demonstrations.

The presidential Elysee Palace and the National Assembly were also cordoned off by police.

‘They don’t give a damn’

The protests began in rural France on November 17 over fuel tax increases and quickly ballooned into a full-scale anti-government rebellion.

President Emmanuel Macron has reacted to the weekly demonstrations with a cross-country tour as part of a “Great National Debate” aimed at encouraging disgruntled citizens to express themselves through structured dialogue.

A 62-year-old demonstrator in Paris Saturday, who gave her first name as Monique, vowed to continue protesting “as long as they (the government) have not given in to our demands, the RIC (citizen-initiated referendum), increased purchasing power and pensions.

“Petrol prices fell when the demonstrations began, and have now risen higher than before,” she noted. “So they don’t give a damn about us.”

‘Unbridled, unjustified violence’

The French banking federation called for an end to attacks on branches during the “yellow vest” protests, saying more than 760 banks had suffered damage since the movement began.

“We must quickly put a stop to this unbridled and unjustified violence,” the federation said in comments published in the daily Le Monde.

In Montpellier, southern France, two police officers were slightly injured by projectiles during a protest by about two thousand people. Five demonstrators were detained.

In Lille, officials closed off the city centre but offered demonstrators an alternative route.

In Bordeaux, where violent clashes broke out during previous protests, Mayor Nicolas Florian shut down the city centre, saying he was “very concerned about what could happen.”

Residents were urged to stay indoors. About 5,000 people, double the previous week’s figure, turned out.

Teargas was fired at the popular Trocadero tourist site, where some protesters hurled projectiles.

Police made 25 arrests in the capital, according to local officials.

A demonstration was also held in the Mediterranean city of Nice, where a 73-year-old activist was injured last week after she was pushed by police and hit her head in the fall.

Police initially insisted that no officer had pushed the woman, but rectified that position following an internal investigation.

Last week, Macron continued to meet with mayors as part of regional tours linked to the national debate.

He is scheduled to end the tour Thursday on the Mediterranean island of Corsica.