Protesters skirmished with police in Paris and other cities Saturday as thousands turned out for new rallies against French President Emmanuel Macron, with dozens arrested as officials vowed a crackdown on the violence that has marred the demonstrations since November.
The “yellow vest” marches began calmly amid a heavy police deployment of some 80,000 officers nationwide, with protesters singing the “Marseillaise” national anthem and holding signs including “Insecurity is not a job”.
But scores of protesters later clashed with riot police after arriving at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, prompting volleys of tear gas and water cannon as security forces prevented them from reaching the Champs-Elysees.
Nearly 60 people had been arrested in the capital, police said, alongside dozens more elsewhere including the central city of Bourges, the site of another major rally.
The interior ministry said there were 32,000 protesters nationwide as of 2:00 pm (1300 GMT), including 8,000 in Paris. That was above the 26,000 counted at the same time last week.
Many of the central districts of the capital were on lockdown for the ninth straight Saturday of protests, which have picked up steam after a holiday lull.
Dozens of banks, jewelry stores and other shops were boarded up on the Champs-Elysees and elsewhere across the city, which have taken a heavy toll on businesses.
“We’ve come to Paris to make ourselves heard, and we wanted to see for ourselves at least once what’s going on here,” said Patrick, 37, who told AFP he had travelled from the Savoie region.
– ‘Macron resign!’ –
A few hundred protesters also clashed with police in the historic centre of Bourges, where nearly 5,000 people gathered as organisers sought to draw more participants from areas far from Paris.
Signs said “Macron resign!” and “France is angry,” while police said 18 people had been detained.
In the well-heeled racehorsing town of Chantilly just north of Paris, 1,000 or so protesters marched through the centre before descending on the hippodrome where they delayed the start of a race, local media said.
Sporadic skirmishes were also reported in the southern town of Nimes involving some 1,000 protesters.
The demonstrations also spilt over the border into eastern Belgium late on Friday, where one of around 25 protesters manning a blockade died after being hit by a truck, Belgian media reported.
– Mutual mistrust –
Officials had warned of bigger and more violent protests than last week, when demonstrators rammed a forklift truck through the main doors of a government ministry in Paris.
“Those who are calling to demonstrate tomorrow know there will be violence, and therefore they are in part responsible,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said in a Facebook interview Friday with Brut, a digital news site favoured by many yellow vests.
But many demonstrators pointed to social media footage of a police officer repeatedly striking an unarmed man on the ground during a protest last week in Toulon, accusing the police of excessive use of force.
The yellow vest movement, which began as protests over high fuel taxes, has snowballed into a wholesale rejection of Macron and his policies, which are seen as favouring the wealthy at the expense of rural and small-town France.
– Politicians inspire ‘distrust, disgust’ –
Macron has called for a national debate starting next week to hear voters’ grievances, hoping to sate demands for more of a say in national law-making and tamp down the protesters’ anger.
He has already unveiled a 10-billion-euro ($11.5 billion) financial relief package for low earners, and axed the planned fuel tax hike.
But the public consultations risk being hobbled by record levels of distrust towards politicians and representatives of the state.
A poll by the Cevipof political sciences institute released Friday showed 77 percent of respondents thought politicians inspired “distrust”, “disgust” or “boredom”.
And Macron may not have done himself any favours on Friday, when he told a gathering at the Elysee Palace that “too many of our citizens think they can get something without making the necessary effort.”