The battle for Paris: Violence erupts in French capital as police clash with rioters leading to 168 arrests – as Yellow Vest demonstrations rage into FIFTH week
- Security forces in riot gear with armoured trucks were positioned around famous Champs-Elysees boulevard
- Protesters are expected to again torch vehicles, destroy shops and vandalise buildings in protest of Macron
- Shops were closed and boarded up in anticipation of the protests, with armoured vehicles parked close by
- France’s interior ministry said number of protesters was estimated at 33,500 – half the level of a week ago
- By the evening 168 arrests made in central Paris as water cannons and armoured vehicles gathered in city
Fighting erupted in central Paris today as thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets of France for the fifth Saturday in a row.
Tear gas and baton charges were used by riot police around the capital’s famous Opera district on a so-called ‘Act V’ Day of Rage, and by midday, more than 60 protesters were in custody.
But by the evening there were close to 170 arrests in central Paris as mounted police, water cannons, and 14 armored vehicles capable of spreading high-intensity gas meanwhile gathered in around the city’s landmarks.
There had been 168 arrests by 6 pm, far down on the roughly 1,000 protesters taken into custody following last Saturday’s demonstrations in Paris.
Around 69,000 security forces were mobilized across France, down from 89,000 last Saturday when 2,000 people were detained at various demonstration around the country.
High-end shops including luxury fashion boutiques were all boarded up around the Opera, along with banks and post offices.
In the late afternoon, a water cannon in a line of police vans confronting protesters sprayed water into a crowd in frigid weather to disperse them. Firefighters put out a fire on a side street leading to the Champs-Elysees and small scuffles broke out between protesters and police.
As night closed in this evening, there were brief disturbances along the Champs Elysee – the most famous shopping avenue in France.
A spokesman for the Paris Prefecture said at 7 pm: ‘There have been 168 arrests so far, with 115 held for public order offenses. Seven serious injuries have been reported.’
Most were so-called Yellow Vest fuel price demonstrators, who are named after the high visibility jackets they wear.
Minor clashes in the cities of Toulouse, Nantes, Lyon, and Bordeaux were reported, while protesters snarled traffic on motorways in the south of the country and on the A16 near the port of Calais in the north.
They have been protesting since November 17 and, despite a range of concessions by President Emmanuel Macron including scrapping green taxes of diesel and petrol, continue to call for him to step down.
The demonstrations against France’s high cost of living – sapped by cold weather, rain and recent concessions by Macron – were significantly smaller Saturday than at previous rallies, some of which scarred parts of Paris with vandalism and looting.
‘Macron Resign’, a crowd of around 1,500 chanted today in the streets around the 19th Century Opera Garnier, which is normally a huge draw for tourists.
Around 8,000 police officers have been deployed ahead of a fifth consecutive week of demonstrations.
France’s interior ministry said earlier today that the number of ‘yellow vest’ protesters in France was estimated at 33,500 at midday – half the level of a week ago – but by 6 pm it was up to 66,000.
The ministry said 126,000 ‘yellow vests’ – named after the fluorescent jackets they wear – had been counted at the same point last weekend.
Police in Paris said fewer than 3,000 had gathered in the capital for the fifth consecutive Saturday of demonstrations, which have so far been largely peaceful.
Five of France’s top-flight football matches have been postponed due to violence across the country.
Today Paris Saint-Germain’s games in Dijon was called off, as Amiens match against Anger, and Montpellier trip to Nantes.
Tomorrow Guingamp v Rennes and Marseille’s home game against Bordeaux has also been rearranged, while Reims v Strasbourg will still go ahead and hold a minute’s silence for the victim’s of Tuesday’s Christmas market terror attack in which four people were killed.
In this early afternoon in Paris, security forces fired teargas on the Champs-Elysees, the epicenter of the protests on previous weekends, as around 500 yellow vests gathered to denounce the government of President Macron.
There were also minor clashes at the Place de l’Opera in Paris where police detonated noise grenades to control crowds there.
Macron announced a series of concessions on Monday to defuse the explosive ‘yellow vest’ crisis, which swelled up from rural and small-town France last month.
He was hoping the package of tax and minimum wage measures for low-income workers, as well as bitter winter weather, will bring calm to the country.
The government had also called on people to stay at home to give stretched security forces a break after another terror attack on Tuesday in Strasbourg where a gunman killed four people at a Christmas market.
Monaem Zerhouni, a 43-year-old father-of-two, in the capital today said: ‘I’ve come to demonstrate peacefully; as soon as there’s violence, I’m leaving.
‘My wife’s unemployed too and we live on 700 euros ($800) a month. It’s tough, we’re always struggling.’
A 28-year-old ‘yellow vest’ called Jeremy who joined a group gathering in freezing cold on the Champs-Elysees shortly after 8 am, said: ‘Last time, we were here for taxes. This is for the institutions: we want more direct democracy.’
He added that people needed to ‘shout to make themselves heard’.
Throughout the morning, riot police played a game of cat-and-mouse with groups of protesters who moved around the center of Paris, much of which has been cordoned off for traffic.
There were isolated incidents of tear gas being fired, but a fraction of the amount used on the weekends of December 8 or December 1 when graffiti was daubed on the Arc de Triomphe in scenes that shocked France.
Until this week, a clear majority of French people had backed the protests, which sprung up initially over tax hikes on transport fuel before snowballing into wide opposition to Macron’s pro-business agenda and style of governing.
But two polls published on Tuesday – in the wake of Macron’s concessions – found the country was now split broadly 50-50 on whether the protests should continue.
‘We expect slightly fewer people (in the streets) but individuals who are slightly more determined,’ junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said late Friday.
Potential weapons including gas canisters, flash ball guns, baseball bats, and petanque balls have been confiscated today, said the spokesman.
Around 90,000 security forces were mobilized last Saturday across France and 2,000 people were detained, around half of them in Paris.
They have failed to prevent widespread disorder over the past few weekends, as roads including the Champs Elysee exploded into intense violence.
There were almost 750 arrests in Paris alone last Saturday, with rioters and looters also taking to the streets of major cities such as Bordeaux and Marseille.
‘There have been 61 arrests so far, mainly of those carrying potential offensive weapons,’ a spokesman for the Paris Prefecture said at 12 midday.
Eric Drouet, a senior figure in the yellow vest movement, said in a video posted on Facebook: ‘What Macron did on Monday, was a call to carry on because he has started to give ground, which is unusual for him.’
Richard Ferrand, parliament speaker and a close ally of Macron, told the Cnews channel this evening: ‘The turnout was lower, which was necessary from my point of view. It’s not a time for combat, but debate.’
‘The police are trying to funnel us into secure areas, but we’re ignoring them,’ said Philippe Berger, a 34-year-old Yellow Vest from Brittany.
‘We’ve come a long way, and want to demonstrate in our own way. The establishment has let us down, and needs a complete change. Macron has to go, and we won’t stop protesting until he does.’
As Mr Berger spoke, police fired gas canisters in to the air, filling streets with white smoke.
The Vests have been joined by extremists from the far Right and the ultra-Left, as well as anarchists intent on causing as much damage as possible.
Maria, who manages the Le Vin Coeur restaurant near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris said this morning: ‘That people demonstrate, no problem, but the vandalism is appalling.’
Like thousands of other business and restaurant owners across the capital, she was apprehensive and ready to pull down her shutters and close at the first whiff of teargas.