Police clamp down on fifth weekend of French protests

Reprieve for Macron as number of demonstrators dwindles following calls for calm

David Keohane in Paris ft.com

French police turned out in force again on Saturday as the gilets jaunes mobilised in reduced numbers for their fifth weekend of protest against Emmanuel Macron and his economic policies, days after the president put billions of euros on the table to try to calm the movement.

In what will be a reprieve for the French president, officials said the number of protesters across France was 66,000, about half last week’s showing. In Paris, the interior ministry said 900 protesters were still in the capital at 6pm, down from closer to 4,000 at midday. Last weekend, some 126,000 marched throughout France, with 10,000 in Paris.

Some 8,000 police and gendarmes were deployed in the capital, the same number as last week, when running battles between gilets jaunes, or yellow vest, protesters saw shops looted and cars burnt.

The government said 69,000 members of the security forces were on duty across France. Last weekend 89,000 officers arrested nearly 2,000 people across the country.

The violence in Paris was less intense than last week. Although there were clashes and arrests, shops away from the main protest on the Champs-Elysées were mostly open for one of the last weekend’s shopping before Christmas, as were many of the city’s main cultural attractions which had been closed the week before.

People throw an effigy of the French President into a sheet, a local carnival tradition, during a protest in Nice, southeastern France. © AFP

Last Monday Mr Macron took to French television in an effort to appease the gilets jaunes, announcing wage increases for low income workers and tax cuts for pensioners — measures which, along with a fuel-tax freeze, add up to €10bn and will send France’s budget deficit above 3 per cent next year.

The president has asked business for help too. French banks have already agreed not to raise household fees next year and more will be expected from companies, both to directly help consumers and to keep the budget deficit as low as possible.

“Today I think our country needs calm, it needs order and a it needs to return to its normal way of functioning,” said Mr Macron earlier in the week.

While on Friday the government tweeted that “to protest is a right, we have to know how to exercise it” as it blamed those who use the protests as cover for theft and vandalism for much of the violence that has taken place so far.

Opposition politicians had added to the calls for calm after this week’s deadly terrorist attack in Strasbourg.

But for those who were out protesting, Mr Macron’s efforts this week did not go far enough and many still called for his resignation. “He has just given us crumbs,” said 62-year-old Christian on the Champs-Elysées even as he admitted the crowds were smaller this weekend.

The protests began against green fuel-tax increases, but quickly became a wider, and often violent, movement against the president.

“This might calm down a bit for a while. It’s cold, it’s the holidays, what happened in Strasbourg . . . and some people are afraid after [the arrests and violence] last weekend. But it will start again. The anger hasn’t gone away,” said Christian.

“At least I haven’t been tear-gassed yet this time,” laughed Flora, a young woman who had travelled to Paris from the east of France for three weekends in a row and said she would keep coming “for as long it takes”.