Uneasy calm returns to France after populist protest turns up heat on leaders
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Uneasy calm returns to France after populist protest turns up heat on leaders

Authorities arrest 130, say marches reduced from week before and damage on Champs-Elysees ‘small,’ but government accused of minimizing movement; Le Pen denies egging on violence

A demonstrator waves the French flag onto a burning barricade on the Champs-Elysees avenue with the Arc de Triomphe in background, during a demonstration against the rising of the fuel taxes, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018 in Paris. (AP/Michel Euler)
A demonstrator waves the French flag onto a burning barricade on the Champs-Elysees avenue with the Arc de Triomphe in background, during a demonstration against the rising of the fuel taxes, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018 in Paris. (AP/Michel Euler)

PARIS, France (AFP) — Anti-government protesters clashed with French police on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Saturday, leaving the area cloaked in tear gas and smoke from fires on a fresh day of demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron.

Demonstrators wearing the yellow, high-visibility vests that symbolize their movement threw projectiles at police preventing them from moving along the famed shopping avenue, which was decked out in twinkling Christmas lights.

They also built barricades in some spots, and tore down traffic lights and street signs, creating riotous scenes reminiscent of France’s 1968 civil unrest, or street insurrections in the mid-19th century immortalized in paintings and movies.

Police arrested 130 people, 69 of those in Paris, and 24 people were injured, five of them police officers including one who suffered burns to his groin, the city police department and Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said.

Plumes of smoke are seen near the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysees avenue decorated with the Christmas lightings during a protest against tax Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018 in Paris. (AP/Christophe Ena)

Calm returned to the streets of the capital after midnight on Saturday, with the Champs-Elysees reopening to traffic.

The clean-up operation also got under way as garbage trucks were deployed and workers removed barricades along the famous avenue.

Macron, targeted by protesters’ calls that he resign, took to Twitter to thank police.

“Shame” on those who assaulted or intimidated citizens, journalists and politicians, Macron said. “There is no place for violence in the (French) Republic.”

Smaller than a week ago

Elsewhere, protesters took over highway toll booths to let traffic pass for free, or held go-slow vehicle processions, underlining one of their core complaints of escalating taxes on car fuel, especially diesel.

The violence in Paris was on a smaller scale than a week ago when the “yellow vest” movement staged its first nationwide protest.

“We’re not here to beat up cops. We came because we want the government to hear us,” said one protest spokeswoman, Laetitia Dewalle, 37, adding that the largely spontaneous movement denounced “violence by pseudo-protesters” on the fringes.

“We have just demonstrated peacefully, and we were teargassed,” said Christophe, 49, who traveled from the Isere region in eastern France with his wife to protest in the capital.

The interior ministry counted 106,000 protesters across France on Saturday, with 8,000 in Paris, of whom around 5,000 were on the Champs-Elysees.

That was far less than the national tally of 282,000 in the November 17 protests.

Castaner said after the tumult died down that damage on the Champs-Elysees was “small.”

A demonstrator holds a flare on a barricade on the Champs-Elysees avenue during a demonstration against the rising of the fuel taxes, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018 in Paris. (AP/Michel Euler)

The French government cast blame for the unruly protests on far-right politician Marine Le Pen, claiming she egged them on.

But Le Pen rejected that accusation saying she had “never called for any violence whatsoever” and in turn accused the government of “organizing the tension” and seeking to make her a scapegoat.

A protester with a jacket reading “Macron resignation” stands in front of a fire of furnitures during a protest of the “yellow vests” (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs near the Arc of Triomphe on the Champs Elysees in Paris, on November 24, 2018 (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP)

Meanwhile, opposition parties on both the right and left accused the government of trying to reduce the protests to just the sporadic scenes of violence, and turning a deaf ear to the demonstrators’ grievances.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the radical left France Unbowed party who attended a separate march Saturday protesting violence against women, tweeted that the action on the streets was “a mass protest of the people” which signaled “the end for Castaner.”

Rural frustrations

A week ago, two people died and over 750 people, including 136 police officers, were injured in sometimes violent demonstrations that have shone a light on frustrations in many rural areas and small towns of France.

The “yellow vests” hail overwhelmingly from non-urban areas of France. They feel overlooked and penalized by policies they see as being pushed through by elitist politicians in Paris.

Protestors wearing yellow jackets clash with riot police officers on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris, Nov.24, 2018 (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)

Former investment banker Macron was elected on a pledge to put more money in workers’ pockets. But the effects of his pro-business reforms on unemployment and purchasing power have been limited so far.

Many of the often low-income “yellow vest” protesters are particularly incensed at his decision to hike anti-pollution taxes on diesel, while scrapping a wealth tax on the rich.

“I’m not just fighting against the price of fuel. It’s about tax, what we pay,” protester Catherine Marguier told AFP near the village of La Gravelle in northwest France.

In a cloud of tear gas demonstrators, called the yellow jackets, try to set up makeshift barricades on the famed Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris, France, as they protest against the rising of the fuel taxes, Nov. 24, 2018 (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)

Meanwhile, in a separate protest in the southern city of Marseille, police fired teargas at bottle-throwing demonstrators upset by the “gentrification” renovation work on the town’s biggest square. Around 1,200 demonstrators took part and two were arrested.

Revolts against taxes have been a feature of French public life for centuries. Citizens still pay some of the highest in Europe as a percentage of GDP, and fuel-price protests are a common modern occurrence.

Previous rounds pitting the government against drivers took place in 1995, 2000, 2004, and 2008, often when tax increases coincided with high oil prices — as they have this year.

A poll by the Odoxa research group for Le Figaro newspaper this week found that 77 percent of respondents described it as “justified.”

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