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Paris is fortified as 5th week of ‘yellow vests’ protests brings scuffles and tear gas


    Demonstrators gather during a protest outside the Opera house, Saturday, Dec. 15 in Paris. Paris police deployed in large numbers today for the fifth straight weekend of demonstrations by the “yellow vest” protesters, with authorities repeating calls for calm after protests on previous weekends turned violent.

PARIS >> Boarded-up shops. Empty cafes. Closed museums. And, for the most part, two main colors: the bright yellow vests of protesters and the black gear of riot police.

For the fifth straight weekend, France was confronted by determined “Yellow Vests” protesters who gathered today in Paris and other cities in a challenge to President Emmanuel Macron and his policies.

This time, they were defying both bitter cold and security warnings from the government, which had said protests would complicate the task of preventing terrorism in the days after an attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg killed four people and injured 11 others.

The turnout was smaller compared with that of previous Saturdays, possibly because of the weather, weariness and concessions made by Macron, who promised tax cuts and wage increases to mollify the protesters after weeks of protest that left seven dead on the fringes of the demonstrations — six people in France and one in neighboring Belgium.

But by midafternoon, the protests were calmer than in past weeks — though some scuffles broke out between protesters and officers, and riot police used tear gas several times to disperse crowds or clear out intersections, as well as water cannons.

In the afternoon, police said that there were fewer than 3,000 protesters in Paris, and that about 90 people had been arrested — a far cry from the more than 500 taken into custody at the same time last week. The government said about 33,000 had turned out across the country; in comparison, roughly 77,000 protesters had been counted at that time nationwide last Saturday, including 10,000 in Paris.

Despite the concessions by the government, the protesters said Macron had not done enough to assuage their concerns.

“We are exhausted by the colossal pressure of taxation that takes away the energy of our country, of our entrepreneurs, of our artisans, of our small businesses, of our creators and of our workers, while a small elite constantly dodges taxes,” Priscillia Ludosky, best known for a petition calling for a drop in gas prices, said in front of the Paris Opera house, where hundreds of protesters had gathered.

The movement has no defined structure, and unofficial leaders of the Yellow Vests used a megaphone to address the crowd. The protesters are also seeking the creation of a mechanism for popular referendums in the constitution, as a way to have a bigger say in making France’s laws.

After the address, protesters trying to leave the area clashed briefly with police, who blocked their way, spraying tear gas and using batons.

The protests initially erupted on Nov. 17, and have been smaller but unrelenting since. More than 1,400 people have been wounded, 46 of them seriously, in addition to 700 police officers, gendarmes and firefighters hurt.

Violence during the protests has increased since the early weeks, especially on Dec. 1 and Dec. 8, when protesters, some of them vandals, clashed with police, burned cars and looted stores. Other cities, like Bordeaux and Toulouse, were also hit by violent protests. In Paris, monuments like the Arc de Triomphe and museums like the Petit Palais stayed closed Saturday.

The demonstrations by the Yellow Vests — who take their name from the fluorescent hazard vests that all drivers in France must carry in their vehicles — were initially driven by anger over an increase in fuel taxes, since canceled. But they have morphed into a much broader expression of frustration over declining purchasing power and a rejection of Macron’s style of government.

“He is someone who looks down his nose at you,” said Pierre-Étienne Billot, 40, one of the relatively few Parisian demonstrators Saturday. Most demonstrators have come to the capital from France’s provinces.

“Macron backed off a bit,” said Billot, who works in marketing. He added that the repetitiveness and weariness that comes with protesting every Saturday had probably discouraged some from returning.

“Demonstrating every Saturday doesn’t help the movement, we need more symbolic actions,” he said, like blocking airports or other key locations.

The overall mood in Paris remained calm, despite sporadic tensions. Crowds on the Champs-Élysées ebbed and flowed as the day progressed and rain started to fall. Police fired tear gas several times to disperse the crowds. As darkness fell and some protesters left a cold and rainy capital, police turned their attention to the vandals and more radical protesters who often act more violently later in the day.

Macron, speaking Friday at a news conference in Brussels after a European summit, said that he had heard the Yellow Vests’ demands and had addressed them, referring to a widely watched televised address this past week. In it, Macron made a rare admission of shortcomings, outlining a roughly 10 billion-euro plan to increase the wages of low-income earners and to cut taxes for poorer pensioners and those on overtime pay. He also promised to work more closely on policymaking with residents and local authorities.

Jody Demengel, a 19-year-old job seeker, and her friend Dylan, 20, both wearing yellow vests, had driven about four hours from the Vosges region to Paris to protest for a second time.

“We are fed up,” said Demengel, noting that while Macron had announced some relief, “the students have nothing, the unemployed are still left by the wayside.”

“He didn’t talk about small businesses,” said Dylan, who declined to give his surname. He said that he was on a fixed-term contract as a pastry worker in a company that couldn’t afford to hire him on a permanent contract because of taxes.

“I’m not for his resignation,” he added, referring to Macron, “but for a broad change in his policies.”

Macron’s call for calm was echoed by many other government officials in the wake of the attack Tuesday in the eastern city of Strasbourg, where four people were shot dead in what authorities described as a terrorist attack. The suspect, Chérif Chekatt, was killed by police Thursday night.

The government even released a video Friday urging protesters to reconsider violence. “Protesting is a right,” it said, but “protesting is not smashing.”

Demonstrators and journalists have complained about police’s heavy-handed tactics during recent protests. In a review published Friday, Human Rights Watch said that France’s “crowd-control methods maim people,” pointing to cases where protesters were wounded by rubber projectiles and tear gas grenades.

Kartik Raj, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, “Tactics which may be legitimate for deterring violent demonstrations are not an appropriate response to people gathered peacefully, and can cause horrific injuries.”

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