PARIS, France (AFP) — Police fired tear gas and water cannons Saturday in central Paris against “yellow vest” protesters demanding French President Emmanuel Macron roll back tax hikes on motor fuel.
Some 3,000 police were deployed in the capital as demonstrators who have blocked French roads over the past week wearing their now signature high-visibility jackets caused another day of disruption after calls to bring Paris to a standstill.
The Interior Ministry said there had been 35 arrests nationwide, with 18 in the capital, while eight people were hurt, including two police. Last Saturday 106 people were injured.
AFP reporters said several thousand had gathered by early Saturday on the famous Champs-Elysees where they clashed with police trying to prevent them moving down to the Place de la Concorde near the Louvre museum.
Police said the protesters had tried to break through a cordon several times but had been prevented from doing so, with tear gas used more than once.
“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. “We see how we are welcomed in Paris.”
Police said Saturday’s incidents were linked to the “presence of members of the far-right who harassed the security forces.”
Government says lower turnout
Nearly 300,000 people blocked motorways, roundabouts, businesses, and fuel depots last Saturday.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said that by late morning, only 23,000 protesters had turned out across France, compared with about 124,000 at the same time the previous Saturday.
Castener said 8,000 took to the streets in Paris, with about 5,000 on the Champs-Elysees. He blamed the violence in the iconic boulevard on the far-right and Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally (formerly the National Front) party.
The police were facing seditious groups “who notably had responded to the call of Marine Le Pen and want to attack the country’s institutions just as they want to attack (government) lawmakers,” the minister said.
Le Pen rejected the remarks, saying she had never called for violence and claiming the government was trying to make her the scapegoat.
Police said eight people had so far been arrested for throwing projectiles.
The demonstrations were sparked by an increase in diesel tax, justified as an anti-pollution levy by the government but have morphed into a broad opposition front to centrist Macron.
Protesters had converged early Saturday on the Place de l’Etoile at the top of the Champs-Elysee avenue, shouting “Macron resign.”
Police had cordoned off a zone that included the Place de la Concorde, the National Assembly and a section of the Champs-Elysees.
“In this zone, no demonstration, no gathering, no march linked to the ‘yellow vests’ can take place,” said Paris police chief Michel Delpuech.
He said mobile police units backed by helicopters were ready to intervene in case of violence or attempts to block the Paris ring road.
“The government has done everything to demonize the movement that will take place in Paris,” said protester Clement Jonie, who came in from the suburbs.
Two people have died and over 750 people, including 136 police officers, were injured during the week of demonstrations that shone a light on frustration over stagnant spending power and the rollback in public services in some areas of France.
On Friday evening, a man with an explosive device and demanding protesters be allowed to meet the French president turned himself in to police in Angers in western France.
Local official Bernard Gonzalez said: “There was a real risk, real danger, he had an explosive charge around his neck… This was not fake.”
‘Struggling and fed-up’
Former investment banker Macron was elected on a pledge to put more money in workers’ pockets but the effects of his reforms on purchasing power — persistently shown as one of the biggest concerns of the French — have been limited so far.
The poor and low-paid are particularly incensed at his decision to hike anti-pollution taxes on diesel and petrol, while scrapping a wealth tax on the rich.
Opposition parties on the hard left and right have cheered on the protesters, whose revolt was described by 77 percent of respondents in an Odoxa poll for Le Figaro newspaper as “justified.”
Macron, who is under pressure to tackle pollution ahead of European Parliament elections next year in which the environment is expected to feature prominently, has refused to back down on taxing polluters.
But with his ratings languishing at record lows of under 30 percent, he has sought to present a more empathetic side.
“We have heard the message of citizens,” one of his aides said on Thursday.
Revolts against taxes have been a feature of French public life for centuries — citizens pay some of the highest in Europe as a percentage of GDP — while fuel price protests are a common occurrence.
On Saturday meanwhile, womens’ groups organised protests in major French cities to raise awareness about sexual abuse.