PARIS, Dec 8 — Businesses in Paris battened down the hatches yesterday and streets were cleared of material that could be used as weapons amid fears of further violence during a fourth round of “yellow vest” protests.
The French capital experienced its worst riots in decades last weekend, in scenes that shook the country and plunged President Emmanuel Macron’s government into its deepest crisis so far.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe yesterday evening met a delegation of self-described “moderate” yellow vests who have urged people not to descend on Paris today.
After the meeting a movement spokesman, Christophe Chalencon, said the premier had “listened to us and promised to take our demands to the president”.
“Now we await Mr Macron. I hope he will speak to the people of France as a father, with love and respect and that he will take strong decisions,” he said.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has vowed “zero tolerance” towards those aiming to wreak further destruction and mayhem, after dozens of vehicles were torched, shops looted and the Arc de Triomphe war memorial was sacked last Saturday.
“These past three weeks have seen the birth of a monster that has escaped its creators,” Castaner told a news conference. “It’s time now for dialogue.”
Castaner said he expected “only a few thousand people” after the 8,000 counted in Paris last weekend, “but among them are ultraviolent individuals”.
‘Keep a low profile’
Shops around the famous Champs-Elysees boulevard — epicentre of last week’s battle — were busy boarding up their windows and emptying them of merchandise yesterday.
Much of the city will effectively be on lockdown.
The operators of landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and Orsay museums said they would be closed, along with operas, theatres, libraries and major department stores.
Foreign governments are watching developments closely.
The US embassy issued a warning to Americans in Paris to “keep a low profile and avoid crowds”, while Belgium, Portugal and the Czech Republic advised citizens planning to visit Paris over the weekend to postpone their visit.
Macron this week gave in to some of the protesters’ demands for measures to help the poor and struggling middle classes, including scrapping a planned increase in fuel taxes and freezing electricity and gas prices in 2019.
But the “yellow vests”, many of whom who have become increasingly radicalised, are holding out for more.
Bullet in the mail
Calls on social media for protesters to attack the police or march on the presidential palace have especially rattled the authorities.
In warning of impending violence, an MP for Macron’s party, Benoit Potterie, received a bullet in the mail yesterday with the words: “Next time it will be between your eyes”.
Philippe said that 8,000 police would be mobilised in Paris out of 89,000 nationwide, and that a dozen armoured vehicles would be deployed — a first in the capital.
The police were already facing accusations yesterday of being heavy-handed.
A video showed officers in riot gear barking orders at dozens of high-school pupils kneeling on the ground with their hands behind their heads following a demonstration in Mantes-la-Jolie near Paris.
The “yellow vests”, named after the high-visibility safety jackets worn by demonstrators, began blocking roads, fuel depots and shopping centres around France on November 17 over soaring fuel prices this year.
Since then the movement has snowballed into a wider revolt against Macron’s economic policies and his top-down approach to power.
Protests at dozens of schools over stricter university entrance requirements, and a call by farmers for demonstrations next week, have added to a sense of a government under siege.
And the hardline CGT union, hoping to capitalise on the movement, has called for rail and Metro strikes next Friday to demand immediate wage and pension increases.
‘Not the people’
The protesters accuse the centrist president of favouring the rich and city-dwellers over those trying to make ends meet in car-dependent rural and small-town France.
Many are calling on him to resign.
But Castaner estimated yesterday that just 10,000 people were taking part nationwide.
“10,000 is not the people, it’s not France,” he argued, despite polls showing the protesters enjoying strong public support.
Macron’s “cardinal sin”, in the eyes of the protesters, was slashing wealth taxes shortly after taking office.
The 40-year-old former investment banker, dubbed “the president of the rich” by critics, has so far ruled out re-imposing the “fortune tax” on high-earners, arguing it is necessary to boost investment and create jobs.
But his climbdown on fuel taxes — intended to help France transition to a greener economy — marks a major departure for a leader who had prided himself on not giving into street protests.
Macron himself has not commented publicly on the crisis since his return from the G20 summit in Argentina a week ago.
Yesterday he met gendarmes in the eastern Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne ahead of today’s demonstrations. He is expected to address the protests in a speech early next week. — AFP