New ‘Yellow vests’ protests affect several French cities

A demonstrator dressed as a Gaul holding a spear and a shield with a message reading "Yellow Vests — Weapons of Wrath" during an anti-government demonstration called by the Yellow Vests "Gilets Jaunes" movement, in Bourges, Saturday. — AFP

PARIS — Thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched in cities across France on Saturday in a new round of “yellow vest” protests against President Emmanuel Macron, accused of ignoring the plight of millions of people struggling to make ends meet.

Officials have vowed zero tolerance for the violence that has marred the weekly protests since they began two months ago, deploying some 80,000 security forces nationwide.

In Paris, epicenter of the fiery street clashes and vandalism that have made global headlines, 5,000 riot police were on hand, using tall barricades and armored vehicles to lock down the central Place de la Concorde and surrounding districts.

Hundreds of officers were also on guard on the Champs-Elysees, where banks, jewelry stores and other shops had boarded up windows in anticipation of renewed looting and violence.

Yet many cafes and retailers on the iconic avenue remained open for business, with workers washing the windows on the first weekend of post-holiday sales.

Businesses have taken a heavy hit since the protests began in November, losing out on millions of euros in Christmas revenue as shoppers steered clear of the protests.

At around 11:00 am (1000 GMT), thousands of protesters gathered near the Gare de Lyon train station for a march toward the Arc de Triomphe — which had been covered in graffiti and ransacked during daylong clashes with police in November.

“We’ve come to Paris to make ourselves heard, and we wanted to see for ourselves at least once what’s going on here,” said Patrick, 37, who told AFP he had traveled from the Savoie region of western France.

Another 1,000 or so protesters gathered in Chantilly, a well-heeled horseracing town just north of Paris, where they marched through the center before descending on the hippodrome where they delayed the start of a race, local media said.

And another 1,200 protesters began gathering in the central city of Bourges, where some yellow-vest organizers were hoping to those from areas far from Paris.

Local prosecutor Joel Garrigue said five people had been detained after police discovered a cache of ball bearings during a search of their car.

The protests also spilt over the border into eastern Belgium late on Friday, where one of around 25 protesters manning a blockade died after being hit by a truck, Belgian media reported.

Mutual mistrust

Officials have warned they expect this weekend’s protests to be bigger and more violent than last week when demonstrators rammed a forklift truck through the main doors of a government ministry in Paris.

Video footage of a former boxer bashing two police officers as they retreated across a bridge over the Seine river was denounced by officials who said the protesters had gone too far.

“Those who are calling to demonstrate tomorrow know there will be violence, and therefore they are in part responsible,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said in a Facebook interview Friday with Brut, a digital news site favored by many yellow vests.

But many yellow vests pointed to images of a police officer repeatedly striking an unarmed man on the ground during a protest last week in Toulon, accusing the police of excessive use of force. — AFP