France's 'yellow vest' protests decline on fifth weekend

Defiant 'gilets jaunes' activists take to the streets, but numbers appear lower after Macron's concessions

TOPSHOT - French Gendarmes patrol in front of Gendarmerie armored vehicles (VBRG) parked on the Champs Elysees, in Paris on December 15, 2018, ahead of a demonstration called by the yellow vest (gilet jaune) to protest against rising costs of living they blame on high taxes. The "Yellow Vests" (Gilets Jaunes) movement in France originally started as a protest about planned fuel hikes but has morphed into a mass protest against President's policies and top-down style of governing. / AFP / Valery HACHE
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Groups of defiant "yellow vest" demonstrators faced off with tens of thousands of police around France on Saturday, but their numbers appeared lower on a fifth and decisive weekend for the anti-government movement.

President Emmanuel Macron, facing the biggest crisis of his presidency, announced a series of concessions on Monday to defuse the "yellow vest" explosive crisis, which swelled up from rural and small-town France last month.

He is hoping the package of tax and minimum wage measures for low-income workers, coupled with a terror attack on Tuesday night in Strasbourg and bitter winter weather, will bring calm to the country.

By lunchtime, crowds in Paris were much smaller than last Saturday and there were no reports of serious violence from regional France after a month of clashes and disruption.


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Police had arrested around 60 people in the capital by 11:00am (2pm UAE) compared with 500 at the same time last weekend, according to figures released by the local government.

"I've come to demonstrate peacefully; as soon as there's violence, I'm leaving," Monaem Zarhouni, a 43-year-old father of two, told AFP in the capital on Saturday.

"My wife's unemployed too and we live on 700 euros (800 dollars) a month. It's tough, we're always struggling," he said.

"Last time, we were here for taxes," a 28-year-old "yellow vest" called Jeremy told AFP as he arrived on the Champs-Elysees in the freezing cold.

"This is for the institutions: we want more direct democracy," he said, adding that people needed to "shout to make themselves heard".

Throughout the morning, riot police played a game of cat-and-mouse with groups of hundreds of protesters moving around the centre of Paris, much of which has been cordoned off from 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.

A protester wearing a yellow vest stands before taking part in a demonstration by the "yellow vests" movement on the Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris, France, December 15, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
A protester wearing a yellow vest waits ahead of a demonstration on the Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris. REUTERS

Outside Paris, groups of "yellow vests" continued to occupy roundabouts to slow down traffic, and there were jams on the A6, A7, A61 and A64 motorways in southern France.

Authorities reported the seventh death linked to the demonstrations in a fatal road accident Friday evening near the France-Belgium border caused by a blockade.

More than 1,400 people have been injured since the protests began on November 17.

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 wider opposition to Macron's pro-business agenda and style of governing.

But two polls published on Tuesday -- in the wake of Mr Macron's concessions -- suggested 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.

Around 8,000 police were on duty in Paris on Saturday, the same number as last weekend, backed up by 14 armoured vehicles, water cannons and horses, which are used for crowd control.

Around 69,000 security forces were mobilised across France, down from 89,000 last Saturday when 2,000 people were detained.

"That people demonstrate, no problem, but the vandalism is appalling," Maria, who manages the Le Vin Coeur restaurant near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris told AFP on Saturday morning.

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.

France "needs calm, order and to go back to its normal functioning," Mr Macron said Friday.

On Thursday, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux called on protesters to stay at home on what is normally a busy shopping weekend ahead of Christmas.

"It would be better if everyone could go about their business calmly on Saturday, before the year-end celebrations with their families, instead of demonstrating and putting our security forces to work once again," he said.

He was speaking in the wake of an attack Tuesday in the eastern city of Strasbourg, which left four dead and 12 wounded.

In a bid to end the protests, Mr Macron announced a package of measures on Monday estimated by economists to cost up to 15 billion euros ($17 billion).

He cancelled planned fuel tax hikes, offered a rise in the minimum wage, tax relief for pensioners and tax-free overtime for workers in 2019.