More than 84,000 people turned out for the ninth round of demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron since November, the interior ministry said, up from 50,000 the previous Saturday.
Attendance had declined over the Christmas holiday break, and while Saturday's turnout was higher than the 66,000 protesters on December 15, it was still far below the nearly 300,000 when the rallies began two months ago.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said that “responsibility triumphed over the temptation of confrontation” in Paris, where 8,000 protesters marched “without serious incident”, up from 3,500 last week. He also hailed the 80,000 officers deployed nationwide, including 5,000 in the capital.
However several journalists were assaulted at rallies in several cities, as well as a security officer accompanying LCI television reporters who was surrounded and beaten by marchers, some wearing yellow vests, in the northern city of Rouen.
“In our democracy, the press is free. In our Republic, the freedom to inform is unalienable. Assaulting journalists is an attack on both,” Castaner tweeted.
For the first time organisers of the Paris march deployed teams wearing white armbands to corral the march that began near the Place de la Bastille.
“We're guiding the march to make sure they keep to the route and avoid confrontations, so they don't respond to police provocations,” one of the “white bands,” who gave his name as Anthony, told AFP.
But scores of protesters later clashed with riot police at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, prompting volleys of tear gas and water cannon as security forces prevented them from reaching the heavily fortified Champs-Elysees.
The protesters began to disperse as night fell, however, and police began removing armoured vehicles and trucks in an atmosphere of relative calm — TV images later showed a guitarist crooning not far from the police lines.
Police detained 244 protesters nationwide, 201 of which were taken into police custody, the interior ministry said. Dozens were arrested in the central city of Bourges, the site of another major rally aimed at drawing people farther from the capital.
“I get by on 1,200 euros ($1,380) a month, and taxes eat away at my savings every day. They're taking away everything we have,” said “Vercingetorix,” a 74-year-old retired archeologist dressed as the legendary Gallic resister to Roman rule.
“We want parliament dissolved. Macron has to stop ignoring us and realise how bad things are,” said William Lebrethon, a 59-year-old construction worker amid signs saying “Macron resign!” and “France is angry.”
A few hundred protesters later burned trash cans amid cat-and-mouse clashes with police in Bourges' historic centre, and skirmishes also broke out in Nimes, Nantes, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille and other cities.
The demonstrations also spilled 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. The man suspected of driving the truck remains on the run. He was identified on Saturday after his licence plate was traced back to a Dutch company, local prosecutors said, adding that a European arrest warrant would be issued.
In London, hundreds wearing yellow vests took to the streets as well, demanding a general election and an end to austerity programmes.
'Condescending and arrogant'
The yellow vest movement, which began as protests over high fuel taxes, has snowballed into a wholesale rejection of Macron and his policies, which are seen as favouring the wealthy at the expense of rural and small-town France.
Officials had feared bigger and more violent protests than last week, when demonstrators rammed a forklift truck through the main doors of a government ministry in Paris. But many demonstrators say the violence cuts both ways, pointing to social media footage of a police officer repeatedly striking an unarmed man on the ground during a protest last week in Toulon.
Macron has called for a national debate starting next week to hear voters' grievances, hoping to sate demands for more of a say in national law-making and tamp down the protesters' anger. He has already unveiled a €10 billion ($11.5 billion) financial relief package for low earners, and axed the planned fuel tax hike.
But the public consultations risk being hobbled by record levels of distrust towards politicians and representatives of the state. A poll by the Cevipof political sciences institute released Friday showed 77 percent of respondents thought politicians inspired “distrust”, “disgust” or “boredom”.
And Macron may not have endeared himself to many voters on Friday, when he told a gathering at the Elysee Palace that “too many of our citizens think they can get something without making the necessary effort.”
“I work 60 hours a week and don't even make the minimum wage!” said Maurice, a 60-year-old carpenter at a protest in Strasbourg.
“Macron goes too far, he's condescending and arrogant. We want the system to change,” added his wife, declining to give her name.
By AFP's Joseph Schmid and Adrien Marotte