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French protesters, police clash on yellow vest anniversary

By AFP - Nov 16,2019 - Last updated at Nov 16,2019

A demonstrator tries to remove a protection wood panel off the wall of a Mc Donald's restaurant on Saturday in Nantes, western France (AFP photo)

PARIS — French police detained dozens in Paris on Saturday as fierce clashes broke out in demonstrations marking the first anniversary of the yellow vest protest movement challenging President Emmanuel Macron's policies.

Yellow vest protesters are staging nationwide demonstrations this weekend in a bid to prove their movement is still a force to be reckoned with, a year after the first giant demonstration on November 17, 2018.

Numbers attending the protests and levels of violence have sharply diminished in recent months from the height of the movement, which began on the back of frustration Macron was failing to address the needs of ordinary French.

But Saturday's protests — which demonstrators called "Act 53" of their weekly gatherings — marked the first serious clashes for months in central Paris between security forces and demonstrators.

Tensions were focused on the Place d'Italie Square in southeast Paris. Police wielding shields and truncheons flooded the area in a cloud of tear gas and used water cannon after stones were thrown, rubbish bins set on fire and an overturned car put ablaze, AFP correspondents said.

A major shopping centre in the area closed after its doors and the windows of a neighbouring hotel complex were attacked by dozens of stone-wielding protesters.

Officers had arrested a total of 105 people across the city by the late afternoon, Paris police said.

Earlier in the afternoon, Paris police chief Didier Lallement had banned the Place d'Italie demonstration, condemning the "the damage and the systematic attacks against the security forces and the fire brigade".

"We are a bit disappointed that this has descended into violence," said Laurent, 50, who had come to Paris from Meurthe-et-Moselle in the east of France to mark the first anniversary. "We are going to look for a quieter place."


'Happy birthday' 


The yellow vests want the actions on Saturday — their traditional day for protests — and also Sunday — the anniversary day — to remind Macron they have not vanished from the scene.

"We're here even if Macron doesn't like it," demonstrators chanted as they arrived on the outskirts of Paris Saturday, with others singing "Happy Birthday".

Several metro stations were closed in the capital and police were deployed in numbers, especially along the Champs-Elysees, which was again closed off to demonstrators following the ransacking of shops that followed a protest last March.

France has a long tradition of violent protest, but the ferocity of last winter's demonstrations and allegations of police brutality shocked the country.

A poll by the Elabe institute published Wednesday said 55 per cent of French people support or have sympathy for the yellow vests, although 63 per cent said they do not want the protests to begin in earnest again.

The most prominent figures in the movement, which has explicitly shunned any formal leadership structure, acknowledge the declining numbers but say the authorities' response has not been sufficient.

"We shouldn't still need to be on the street one year on," said Priscillia Ludosky, an entrepreneur whose online petition against high fuel prices helped kick off the movement, told the Regards news site.


'End of public services' 


The yellow vests — named for the glow-in-the-dark waistcoats all French drivers must carry in their cars — posed the biggest challenge to Macron since he came to power in 2017 on the back of promises of sweeping change.

Initially taken aback by the size and intensity of the movement, Macron offered billions of euros in state aid and tax breaks — and scrapped a planned fuel tax hike — while embarking on a "Great National Debate" at town halls nationwide.

He has also tried to soften his sometimes abrasive style. Just weeks before the protests erupted, Macron told a 25-year-old man looking for a job in Paris that "if I crossed the street I'd find you one".

Outside of Paris, there were fewer reports of violence and large-scale protests but 700 people rallied in the eastern city of Lille while clashes broke out in the western city of Nantes where around 1,000 people turned out.

"If the movement disappears, I worry that society will dehumanise and that would be the end of public services and the reign of money the king," said Vanessa, a protester 47, in Nantes.

The next major street challenge to Macron, however, may not come from this weekend's protests but a strike called by unions on December 5 to rally against his planned pension reforms.

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