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Paris: 'Yellow vest' protest marred by violent clashes with French police on Champs-Elysées

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Paris: 'Yellow vest' protest marred by violent clashes with French police on Champs-Elysées
Photo: AFP
14:41 CET+01:00
Thee famous Champs-Elysées avenue in Paris was the scene of violence on Saturday as thousands of anti-government "yellow vest" protesters repeatedly clashed with French police, hurling rocks and building barricades across the road. Police responded with tear gas and water cannon.

Several thousand demonstrators, wearing high-visibility yellow jackets, had gathered on the avenue as part of protests which began last Saturday against an increase in diesel tax, justified as an anti-pollution levy by the government.

The protests have since morphed into a broad opposition front to centrist President Emmanuel Macron.

By mid-afternoon, 81,000 protestors had been counted across France, compared with about 244,000 at the same time last week, figures from the interior ministry showed.

Around 8,000 took to the streets in Paris, and about 5,000 gad gathered by early Saturday on the famous Champs-Elysées where they clashed with police trying to prevent them moving down to the Place de la Concorde near the Louvre museum.

Police said the protestors had tried to break through a cordon several times but had been prevented from doing so, with tear gas used more than once.

IN IMAGES: Burning barricades and water cannon - The Battle of the Champs-Elysées

 

"We have just demonstrated peacefully, and we were teargassed," said Christophe, 49, who traveled from the Isere region in eastern France with his wife to protest in the capital. "We see how we are welcomed in Paris."

 

Paris police authorities said Saturday's incidents were linked to the "presence of members of the far-right who harassed the security forces."

Reports claimed tat as many as 100 members of extreme-right movements had infiltrated the protesters. Internal police intelligence memos leaked before the protest also pointed to the presence of extremest-left militants among the protesters.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said that by late morning, only 23,000 protestors had turned out across France, compared with about 124,000 at the same time the previous Saturday.

Castener said 8,000 took to the streets in Paris, with about 5,000 on the Champs-Elysees. He blamed the violence in the iconic boulevard on the far-right and Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally (formerly the National Front) party.

The police were facing seditious groups "who notably had responded to the call of Marine Le Pen and want to attack the country's institutions just as they want to attack (government) lawmakers," the minister said.

Le Pen rejected the remarks, saying she had never called for violence and claiming the government was trying to make her the scapegoat.

Police said eight people had so far been arrested for throwing projectiles.

 

The 'yellow vest' protesters were seen ripping up paving stones or starting to build barricades.

 

But "no demonstrator entered" the zone that had been cordoned off by police on the Place de la Concorde and the lower part of the Champs-Elysee, near the presidential palace.

Paris authorities had authorised a demonstration in a park next to the Eiffel Tower.

"The government has done everything to demonise the movement that will take place in Paris," said Clement Jonie as he joined protesters gathering in the west of Paris early Saturday.

"We hear the deputies from the (governing) LREM say 'we will hold the course' but the movement is on its way, it is not ready to stop", said the 47-year-old logistician, who had traveled in from the suburbs.

Two people have died and over 750 people, including 136 police officers, were injured during the week of demonstrations that shone a light on frustration over stagnant spending power and the rollback in public services in some areas of France.

Former investment banker Macron was elected on a pledge to put more money  in workers' pockets but the effects of his reforms on purchasing power -- persistently shown as one of the biggest concerns of the French -- have been limited so far.

 

The poor and low-paid are particularly incensed at his decision to hike anti-pollution taxes on diesel and petrol, while scrapping a wealth tax on the rich.

Opposition parties on the hard left and right have cheered on the protesters, whose revolt was described by 77 percent of respondents in an Odoxa poll for Le Figaro newspaper as "justified".

"It's the cry of a France that is struggling and fed-up," Jordan Bardella, spokesman for the far-right National Rally (former National Front) said.

Macron, who is under pressure to tackle pollution ahead of European Parliament elections in which the environment is expected to feature prominently, has refused to back down on taxing polluters.

But with his ratings languishing at record lows of under 30 percent, he has sought to present a more empathetic side.

Next week, he will unveil a new energy plan that will aim to make the shift towards cleaner fuel and power more "acceptable".

"We have heard the message of citizens," one of his aides said on Thursday.

Revolts against taxes have been a feature of French public life for centuries -- citizens pay some of the highest in Europe as a percentage of GDP -- while fuel price protests are a common occurrence.

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