Thousands march in French cities amid police warning of zero tolerance for violence
Thousands of demonstrators have marched in cities across France in a new round of “yellow vest” protests against President Emmanuel Macron, as authorities vowed zero tolerance for violence.
At around 11:00 am (1000 GMT), thousands of protesters gathered near the Gare de Lyon train station for a march toward the Arc de Triomphe.
“We’ve come to Paris to make ourselves heard, and we wanted to see for ourselves at least once what’s going on here,” said a protester who had traveled from the Savoie region of western France.
Another 1,000 protesters gathered in Chantilly, a town just north of Paris while another 1,200 protesters began gathering in the central city of Bourges, where some yellow-vest organizers were hoping to those from areas far from Paris.
Clashes erupted between protesters and police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators.
Police have deployed armored vehicles and some 80,000 security forces nationwide to contain protests.
Officials said on Friday that they expected the ninth consecutive weekend of the rallies to be bigger and possibly more violent than the previous ones as the anti-government movement seems to be gathering momentum.
Michel Delpuech, the Paris police chief, said he expected protesters in the French capital city to outnumber the estimated 3,500 who attempted to march on the National Assembly last Saturday, also predicting they would be “more tempted by violence.”
Reports said 5,000 officers along with armored vehicles were ready to be deployed in Paris.
Shops in the neighborhood surrounding Paris’ Champs Elysees avenue were also getting ready for the fresh round of anti-government protests, using wooden panels to protect their displays, according to witnesses.
Thousands of “yellow vest” protesters were expected to descend on the central cathedral city of Bourges for the first time this week. City officials had already outlawed any kinds of gatherings in the historic city center. They also closed down public buildings and gardens, removed parking meters, benches and other urban furniture.
“I hope that in a city where there’s been no incidents since the start of the movement, the mobilization will be strong and peaceful,” one of the protest organizers said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
French government officials have vowed to crack down on the violence that has marred the demonstrations after weekly scenes of rioting and vandalism in Paris and other cities across the country over the past two months.
“Those who are calling to demonstrate tomorrow know there will be violence, and therefore they are in part responsible,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said on Friday. “Those who think that a few thousand people can make us question our institutions are wrong.”
Le Pen slams government response to protests
French far-right politician Marine Le Pen, the head of the country’s National Front party, denounced the government’s reaction to the movement as “disturbing.”
“To accuse all protesters of ‘complicity’ with the thugs: here is a new verbal provocation and legal ineptitude waiting to undermine our rule of law,” she wrote on Twitter.
The comments are made as the level of participation on Saturday is believed to pave the way for next week’s national debate on addressing the protesters’ grievances.
Macron has expressed hope that the debate will help defuse the crisis, but a recent national poll has found 77 percent of the French “distrust” the process.
The “yellow vest” movement initially erupted in November amid public outrage over a planned hike in fuel prices. The embattled French president later backed down and suspended the hike, but the protests did not stop and turned into a broader campaign against high costs of living blamed on Macron’s economic policies.
Many of the protesters are demanding the resignation of Macron, a demand dismissed as undemocratic by the government.
The “yellow vest” campaign is said to be the biggest political crisis of Macron’s 20-month presidency and has brought his popularity ratings to an all-time low.
In recent weeks, some of the protests have turned into major riots described as the most violent clashes in France in decades.
Public anger appeared to have abated over the New Year holiday period; however, the detention of Eric Drouet, one of the leaders of the movement, seems to have rekindled resentment among his supporters.
Since the onset of the movement, 10 people have been killed and more than 1,500 have been injured. Fifty of the injury cases were serious. Thousands more have been arrested by security forces.