The demonstrations have grown from protests by motorists angry at having to pay more for gas into a movement drawing in farmers, white-collar workers, retirees and others concerned about France’s high cost of living.
French police used teargas against the so-called “yellow vest” protesters trying to break through security barriers at the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Saturday.
Authorities detained more than 100 people, with police fearing that far-right and far-left groups may have joined the demonstrations.
“We’re worried that small groups of rioters that aren’t ‘yellow vests’ will infiltrate [Saturday’s demonstration] to fight security forces and challenge the authority of the state,” said Denis Jacob, secretary general of police union Alternative Police.
“Given the high level of security around the Champs, the fear is thugs will go to other places,” Jacob added.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said about 36,000 people had joined protests across the country, including 5,500 in the capital Paris. In one instance, police used water cannons to quash violent protesters. Several protesters clashed with police in Paris, throwing projectiles and setting fire to property in the area near the Champs Elysees.
For over two weeks, the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) protesters — who take their name from the high-visibility jackets all motorists in France carry in their vehicles — have blocked streets across the country and sporadically clashed with police. They are demanding the government reverse its economic policies that have resulted in high fuel prices and a spike in living costs.
French authorities beefed up security ahead of Saturday’s protests, deploying some 5,000 police and gendarmes in Paris, up from about 3,000 last Saturday. Another 5,000 will be deployed across France for other yellow vest protests.
“There’s a lot of incitement on social media and we are expecting excess and violence,” David Michaux of the UNSA Police union told Reuters news agency.
Three formal demonstrations were planned across Paris on Saturday: the one organized by “yellow vests,” a trade union protest against unemployment and a separate rally against racism.
The protests enjoy widespread support in France, with an opinion poll published on Wednesday showing that two in three people backed the rallies, despite the disruption they have caused to traffic and the economy.
The protests pose one of the biggest challenges to President Emmanuel Macron’s 18-month presidency.
Macron has rejected demands to scrap an increase in fuel tax due to come into force in January, saying it is necessary to fight pollution. However, he did promise on Tuesday to come up with a roadmap aimed at helping France move toward a low-carbon economy without putting an added burden on those with a low income.
Macron, a former investment banker, has faced growing criticism of a perceived elitist attitude that puts him at a distance from normal citizens.
“Yellow vest” protests have also spread to Belgium. On Friday, police in Brussels clashed with protesters angered by high taxes and food prices.
shs/jlw (Reuters, AFP)