A month of "yellow-vest" protests took a further toll on the popularity of French leader Emmanuel Macron, a new poll showed on Sunday, with analysts saying he will be forced to change his style of governing.
About 66,000 protesters turned out again on Saturday in a fifth round of anti-government demonstrations, which began over fuel tax hikes last month.
This figure was about half the number of the previous weekend, suggesting the protests' momentum was waning and the most acute political crisis of Mr Macron’s 19-month presidency was coming to an end.
“It is calming down, but what remains of it all is a strong feeling of hatred towards Macron,” said veteran sociologist Herve Le Bras from the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences.
A major poll published in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper showed approval for Mr Macron slipped another two points in the past month, to 23 percent.
The proportion of people who said they were “very dissatisfied” by his leadership jumped by six points to 45 percent.
Many of the protesters targeted Mr Macron personally, calling on him to resign or attacking his background as an investment banker and his alleged elitism.
Mr Le Bras said the protests underlined the depth of dislike for Macron’s personality and style of governing, which critics see as arrogant and distant.
Until last week, a clear majority of French people backed the protests, which sprung up initially over high taxes before snowballing into broader opposition to Mr Macron.
In a bid to end the standoff, he announced a package of measures for low-income workers on Monday in a televised address, estimated by economists to cost up to €15 billion (Dh62.3bn).
The 40-year-old also acknowledged widespread animosity towards him and came close to apologising for a series of verbal gaffes thought to be dismissive of the poor or jobless.
Two polls published last Tuesday – in the wake of Mr Macron’s concessions – suggested the country was now split 50-50 on whether the protests should continue.
“It’s a movement that has succeeded in forcing back what looked like a strong government,” Jerome Sainte-Marie, a public opinion expert at the Pollingvox group, told AFP.
“People have confidence in themselves now, so things won’t return to how they were on November 15” before the protests started, he said.
“The context in which Emmanuel Macron holds power has changed,” he added.
The former investment banker had until now styled himself as a determined pro-business reformer who would not yield to pressure from protests like his predecessors.
“Macron has given an indication that he is more open to dialogue,” Jean-Daniel Levy from the Harris Interactiv polling group said.
The government has announced a six-month consultation with civil society groups, mayors, businesses and the protesters to discuss tax and other economic reforms.
Rises in petrol and diesel taxes, as well as tougher emissions controls on old vehicles – justified on the grounds of environmental protection – were what initially sparked the "yellow vests" movement.
Mr Macron “won’t necessarily change the overall course of his reforms, rather the way he carries them out,” Mr Levy added.
In Paris on Saturday, more than 8,000 police easily outnumbered the 2,200 protesters counted by local authorities.
There were 168 arrests by early evening, far fewer than the 1,000 or so of last Saturday.
Tear gas was fired, but only a fraction of the amount compared with earlier this month when graffiti was daubed on the Arc de Triomphe in scenes that shocked France.
At Toulouse, in the south-west, police said they arrested 31 people and were still holding 26 after clashes in the city.
Two motorway tollbooths at Narbonne and Perpignan in the south were burned overnight Saturday to Sunday, firefighters reported. Both were attacked in previous protests.
Richard Ferrand, the head of France's National Assembly, welcomed the “necessary” weakening of ‘yellow vest’ rallies on Saturday, adding that “there had been a massive response to their demands”.
Now, he added: “The time for dialogue has come.”
Interior minister Christophe Castaner called on protesters to halt the blockades which disrupted traffic and businesses.
“Everyone’s safety has to become the rule again,” he tweeted.
“Dialogue now needs to unite all those who want to transform France.”
He confirmed that eight people died since the start of the movement.
Around 69,000 members of the security forces were on duty across France on Saturday, down from 89,000 the previous weekend, when 2,000 people were detained.