French police used teargas against the so-called “yellow vest” protesters trying to break through security barriers at the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Saturday.
Police detained at least 24 people, with officials fearing that far-right and far-left groups could join the demonstrations.
“We’re worried that small groups of rioters that aren’t ‘yellow vests’ will infiltrate [Saturday’s demonstration] to fight security forces and challenge the authority of the state,” Denis Jacob, secretary general of police union Alternative Police, said.
“Given the high level of security around the Champs, the fear is thugs will go to other places,” Jacob added.
For over two weeks, the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) protesters — who take their name from the high-visibility jackets all motorists in France carry in their vehicles — have blocked streets across the country and sporadically clashed with police. They are demanding the government reverse its economic policies that have resulted in high fuel prices and a spike in living costs.
French authorities beefed up security ahead of Saturday’s protests, deploying some 5,000 police and gendarmes in Paris up from about 3,000 last Saturday. Another 5,000 will be deployed across France for other yellow vest protests.
“There’s a lot of incitement on social media and we are expecting excess and violence,” David Michaux of the UNSA Police union told Reuters news agency.
Three formal demonstrations were planned across Paris on Saturday, including the one organized by “yellow vests,” a trade union protest against unemployment, and a separate rally against racism.
The protests enjoy widespread support in France, with an opinion poll published on Wednesday showing that two in three people backed the rallies, despite the disruption they have caused to traffic and the economy.
The protests pose one of the biggest challenges to President Emmanuel Macon’s 18-month presidency.
Macron has rejected demands to scrap an increase in fuel tax due to come into force in January, saying it is necessary to fight pollution. However, he did promise on Tuesday to come up with a roadmap aimed at helping France move toward a low-carbon economy without putting an added burden on those with a low income.
Macron, a former investment banker, has faced growing criticism or a perceived elitist attitude that puts him at a distance from normal citizens.
“Yellow vest” protests have also spread to Belgium. On Friday, police in Brussels clashed with protesters angered by high taxes and food prices.
shs/jlw (Reuters, AFP)