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Paris under siege as gilets jaunes open ‘Act IV’ – a fourth weekend of protest

Paris under siege as gilets jaunes open ‘Act IV’ – a fourth weekend of protest

Even before the sun had risen on Place de la Bastille, the enduring symbol of the French Revolution, France’s security forces were taking no chances. As gilets jaunes enjoyed an early morning coffee in a cafe on the square, police and gendarmes deployed. In the middle of a long line of vans filled with CRS…

Even before the sun had risen on Place de la Bastille, the enduring symbol of the French Revolution, France’s security forces were taking no chances.

As gilets jaunes enjoyed an early morning coffee in a cafe on the square, police and gendarmes deployed. In the middle of a long line of vans filled with CRS riot police was a dark blue VBRG armoured vehicle, often used in military operations abroad – including Kosovo – but rarely in Paris.

The gilets jaunes carried on with their breakfast. “We’re not here to cause trouble,” said one.

The massive windows of a nearby annexe of the Banque de France were entirely boarded up as were other banks, businesses and shops.

Some shopkeepers had placed gilets jaunes – the high visibility vests all French motorists must have in their vehicles and the uniform of the movement – in their windows as a sign of support and a plea not to smash up the store.

Across the city, the pre-dawn lock-down continued. On what should have been one of the busiest shopping days of the year a fortnight before Christmas, Paris was eerily quiet. The facades of the city’s celebrated department stores, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, were dark, their famous Christmas lights and window animations turned off and covered with blackout blinds. Dozens of Métro stations were closed and bus services cancelled.

More than a dozen monuments and museums were closed, including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre; Opera houses cancelled performances. Six Ligue 1 football matches have been cancelled.

On the Champs-Élysées, the gilets jaunes gathered for what their unofficial leaders had described as Act IV of their action, calling for a fourth weekend of demonstrations. A small group tried to prise up paving stones, but they were a minority, and were quickly hauled out of the crowd. Most of the demonstrators were content to shout slogans against the president, Emmanuel Macron, wave flags and banners and sing the Marseillaise as they dodged the tear gas.

As the day wore on, increasingly violent skirmishes broke out between police and extreme elements of the grass-roots movement, some reportedly from the ultra right and ultra left. On the Grands Boulevards, a group of men, some dressed in black and wearing masks and scarves, ripped branches from trees and set them alight, and pulled up metal grilles to build a barricade across the street. Police used water cannon to put out the flames and pushed demonstrators back forcing them to disperse down side streets.

On the Champs-Élysées another group ripped off wood boarding from a major store and set it alight. In many cases, plain-clothed officers could be seen identifying trouble-makers then diving into the crowd to haul them out and throw them into police vans parked nearby.

The first use of teargas came just before 10.30am as police cleared protesters, who had been shouting slogans against Macron and singing the Marseillaise, from a side street and pushed them back on to the Champs-Élysées.

A group of gilets jaunes attempted to block the Péripherique, the ring road, west of the city.

Outside Paris, 2,000 gilets jaunes demonstrated in the Mediterranean port of Marseille, and there were protests in Grenoble, Saint-Étienne and the Belgian capital, Brussels.

Protesters wave the flag and sing the anthem as the police respond with tear gas.

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Protesters wave the flag and sing the anthem as the police respond with tear gas. Photograph: Lucas Barioulet/AFP/Getty Images

Politicians, police and gendarmes were desperate to avoid the running battles, torched cars and buildings, and destruction of last Saturday – the worst violence in central Paris for at least 50 years – when they were accused of losing control.

Tactics have changed. Officers stopped and searched anyone and everyone, whether or not they were wearing a gilet jaune. They emptied bags, confiscating face masks against tear gas, helmets, hammers and anything that could be used as a projectile, including baseballs and pétanque boules. There were also hundreds of “preventative arrests”. By midday, the interior ministry announced that 548 people had been arrested, 272 of them remanded in custody. On 2 December there had been a total of 412 arrests for the whole day.

A group of gilets jaunes from the Auvergne in central France who made the five-and-a-half-hour journey to the capital by coach overnight, seemed lost around the Champs-Élysées, which had been entirely sealed off.

“We’re here for many reasons but basically because we’re fed up. Everyone’s fed up. The politicians ask us to make sacrifices while they do nothing,” said one young man.

They insisted the government’s decision last week to drop the eco-tax on fuel was too little too late. Since then, the gilets jaunes movement has widened its demands to include lower taxes, higher wages and more purchasing power. “The government is wrong if it thinks that the fuel tax is the only problem. The problem is the cost of living, reduced pensions … problems we have to deal with every day.”

Asked if they were afraid the protests would degenerate into violence, one added: “Worried. Not afraid. We know that police have put on yellow vests and smashed things up just to give the gilets jaunes a bad image.”

How did he know? “I saw it on the internet. They were definitely police, smashing things up.”

Ultra-right and left groups have been accused of whipping up the gilets jaunes movement with fake news spread via social media.

As Saturday wore on, the government’s decision to deploy 89,000 police and gendarmes across the country, 8,000 in Paris, alongside a dozen VBRG armoured vehicles, appeared to be paying off.

Protesters wearing yellow vests

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Protesters wearing yellow vests gather with demonstrators of the world climate march at the Place de la Republique. Photograph: Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters

Macron has not spoken publicly about the unrest for three weeks but is expected to make a public statement early this week. Élysée officials suggested the president, the gilets jaunes’s primary target, was anxious not to inflame the situation by speaking before Saturday’s demonstrations.

In an interview with the Observer, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the May 1968 student riots and one of Macron’s friends and advisers, said the president and the government needed a “complete reset …and a tax revolution” to answer protesters’ demands.

“A Pandora’s box has opened out of which has come the deep bitterness of part of France. People say, ‘you’ve given gifts to the rich and gifts to businesses but what happens to those living on pensions of €1,200 a month? You’ve given things to those who already have money and nothing to us’. The government has not succeeded in countering this. Now it’s urgent, there’s a convergence of demands, the cover has come off the box and exploded.”

He said there was something “dangerous … and frightening” about the violence. “There have been many great revolts by the working class in French history. And there’s the mythology of the French Revolution. It’s all part of the genetic culture. But we are now witnessing the kind of extreme violence never seen before,” he said.

“For lycéens to be burning their high schools, for protesters to be trying to set fire to buildings with people inside them … this is terrible. We see that there are some in the gilets jaunes movement who can be very violent, some who are like football hooligans, and some who are disaffected youths from the banlieues. It’s an explosive mix.”

Boarded-up shops

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The weekend should have been one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images

He added: “It would be a pity if this violence destroyed what the movement has achieved, which is to highlight the situation of people at the bottom. The French government’s responsibility is to capitalise on this great show of solidarity and propose negotiations, particularly with the unions. If it’s intelligent, that’s what it will do.”

Having been given directions to the Champs-Élysées, the Auvergne group had one parting shot for me. “Don’t mix us up with the casseurs (smashers, vandals and looters); they have nothing to do with the real gilets jaunes and we’re not here for that.”

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