PARIS—Thousands of “yellow-vest” protesters took to France’s streets Saturday, some clashing with riot police, in a renewed show of force against the government after demonstrations flagged during the holiday season.
A peaceful march along the Seine river turned violent when riot police blocked hundreds of protesters outside the Musée d’Orsay. Groups of demonstrators launched projectiles at police, who used tear gas to disperse them. Video posted to social media showed two policemen being dragged to the ground and repeatedly kicked when a group of protesters tried to force their way through a police cordon, blocking access to a bridge across the Seine. A barge on the river was set on fire.
As darkness fell, people burned scooters and bins along the Boulevard Saint-Germain, an upscale area south of the Seine that had been spared the brunt of previous yellow-vest protests.
Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux had to be evacuated from his office when a group of people tried to break into the building using construction machinery.
“Once again, an extreme violence has attacked the republic – its guardians, its representatives, its symbols,” President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter. “Justice will be done. Everyone must pull themselves together and ensure debate and dialogue can take place.”
Protesters also turned out in Bordeaux, Marseille, Lyon and other cities across the nation. The interior minister convened a meeting of security forces in response to the violence.
Saturday’s demonstrations suggest the yellow vests, or “gilets jaunes,” continue to present a formidable challenge to Mr. Macron’s government nearly two months after emerging to oppose a fuel-tax increase. Protesters have gathered every Saturday since then to denounce Mr. Macron’s government.
Some demonstrators said remarks this week from Mr. Macron in his New Year’s Eve address and later from Mr. Griveaux drew them out into the streets again. The president criticized those acting like “megaphones for a hateful crowd” and pledged to preserve “order of the republic…without complacency.”
Mr. Griveaux said he was in his office working with half a dozen others when his security staff told him he needed to leave through the back door.
“The French want order,” Mr. Griveaux said. “They want to open a dialogue. Those who broke in today did not behave like citizens. I hope we will find them and they will be punished.”
“I’ve come back because we’ve been provoked,” said Patrick Coudeyrette, a 54-year-old civil servant from Paris who protested Saturday after taking a break for the holidays. “People who protest peacefully like me are being accused of violence and wanting to overthrow the government.”
Police said 3,500 demonstrators turned out in Paris, compared with 800 a week earlier.
Around 50,000 people protested across the country, compared with a peak of 32,000 last week, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said. By comparison, 38,600 protested on Dec. 22, 66,000 the week prior, and 282,000 turned out for the first protest on Nov. 17, according to government numbers.
Some figures in the movement were also banking on the arrest last week of Eric Drouet, one of the gilets jaunes’ most prominent members, to galvanize supporters.
Mr. Drouet was later released and said in a
live video that he had orchestrated the events that led to his arrest to “show the French that we are not free.”
“It’s what we wanted, to show that we can’t move around freely even when we are not protesting,” he said Thursday.
Opinion polls show support for the movement has declined and the French public is divided over whether it should continue. Mr. Macron has offered a number of concessions to defuse the protests, including suspending the government’s planned fuel-tax increase.
An Odoxa poll published Thursday found that 55% of the French public was in favor of the movement carrying on, while 45% thought it should stop. The poll showed that support for the yellow vests remains strong among the working class and in rural France. In the early weeks of the movement, opinion polls consistently found that more than two thirds of French people supported the protests.
Mr. Griveaux said Friday that the movement had been exploited by “agitators who want insurrection and, in substance, to overthrow the government.”
“We must satisfy the desire for change of the French because it is this desire that brought us to power,” he told reporters.
Unlike some other weekends, the stores on Paris’s Champs-Élysées avenue, as well as all attractions and museums, remained open.
Source : WSJ