French police avoid repeat of yellow vest riots after tightening security

By Sylvie Corbet, Associated Press

Scattered yellow vest protesters clashed with police firing tear gas after a peaceful march through Paris, but tougher security measures and bans on protests in high-risk neighbourhoods prevented the kind of rioting that devastated the city a week ago.

The yellow vest movement, which backs greater support for struggling French workers and retirees, appeared diminished after last week’s destruction and violence further alienated supporters.

The protests started four months ago, targeting French President Emmanuel Macron and the economic elite they feel he epitomises.

Protesters take part in a rally under the Basilica of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre (Kamil Zihnioglu/AP)

Thousands of demonstrators marched peacefully through Paris — their 19th straight weekend of protests — ending up at the Sacre-Coeur Cathedral overlooking the city from the tourist-heavy Montmartre area.

Protesters sprayed yellow flares and unfurled a neon banner from atop the cathedral’s white dome. In a relaxed mood, demonstrators and tourists alike took selfies as the march wound down.

Later, however, tensions erupted as small clusters of masked protesters set garbage cans on fire and threw projectiles as they moved toward Republique Plaza in eastern Paris. Riot police fired volleys of tear gas in response.

A demonstrator faces police officers during minor clashes in Paris (Kamil Zihnioglu/AP)

Small groups of demonstrators and police also clashed in the southern French cities of Nice and Montpellier.

Nice was placed under high security measures as Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to stay overnight on Sunday as part of his state visit to France.

Overall, Saturday’s protests were smaller and calmer than a week ago, when resurgent violence reminded France’s government that they’ve failed to quell yellow vest anger.

Luxury shops were looted and ransacked last weekend around the Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris and some were set on fire by protesters.

This week, the French Interior Ministry estimated 8,300 protesters nationwide, including 3,100 in Paris. There were about 10,000 in Paris alone last week.

A protester stand in front of a barricade on fire during a yellow vests demonstration last week (Christophe Ena/AP)

French authorities banned protests from the Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris and the central neighbourhoods of several other cities including Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille and Nice in the south, and Rouen in western France.

The Champs-Elysees was almost empty Saturday except for a huge police presence. Fear of more violence seemed to kept tourists away, and police shut down the Champs-Elysees subway stations as a precaution.

The new Paris police chief, Didier Lallement, who took charge this week following the destruction wrought by last week’s protests, said specific police units were created to react faster to any violence.

About 6,000 police officers were deployed in the capital on Saturday and two drones helped monitor the demonstrations. French authorities also deployed soldiers to protect sensitive sites, allowing police forces to focus on maintaining order.

French soldiers patrol at the Tuileries Gardens in Paris (Kamil Zihnioglu/AP)

The protests started in November to oppose fuel tax hikes but have expanded into a broader rejection of Mr Macron’s economic policies, which protesters say favour businesses and the wealthy over ordinary French workers.

Mr Macron countered by dropping the fuel tax hike and holding months of discussions with the public on France’s stagnant wages, high taxes and high unemployment.

The yellow vest movement was named after the fluorescent garments that French motorists must carry in their vehicles for emergencies.