Police have fired tear gas and clashed with “yellow vest” protesters who marched through Paris and other cities across France for the 19th week against the policies of President Emmanuel Macron.
Thousands of demonstrators marched peacefully through Paris to the Sacré Coeur basilica earlier on Saturday. Later in the afternoon, police fired tear gas at protesters near Boulevard de Strasbourg.
Skirmishes also took place in the northern city of Lille, as well as the cities of Toulouse and Montpellier in the south, among others.
For the first time, the government deployed soldiers to help guard public buildings after shops and vehicles were burned down during last weekend’s protests.
According to the interior ministry, some 233 arrests were made on Saturday. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner estimated that 5,000 people had taken part in the protests in Paris.
Ahead of the protests, the military governor of Paris had said troops would be allowed to fire live ammunition if necessary.
General Bruno Leray said an unspecified number of “Operation Sentinelle” soldiers mainly used for anti-terrorism duties would be defending public buildings.
“They are subject to the same legal framework as the internal security forces,” he added, while conceding that soldiers had “different ways of coping” with trouble.
“They are perfectly capable of appreciating the nature of the threat and answering it in a proportionate manner,” he said.
Operation Sentinelle includes 10,000 soldiers and 4,700 police and gendarmes deployed since the aftermath of the January 2015 France attacks, with the objective of protecting sensitive “points” of the territory from terrorism.
The deployment came after Macron summoned a security meeting last week to assess the critical situation and vowed to take “strong measures” to prevent violent protests from happening again.
The decision sparked criticism from opposition leaders and some demonstrators. “Since when do soldiers face a population?” Christelle Camus, a protester from a southern suburb of Paris, said.
The protests started in November to oppose now-abandoned fuel tax hikes and then rapidly evolved into a broader movement against Macron and his pro-business reforms, as well as elitism in general.
The so-called yellow vest movement, one of the largest French demonstrations in recent history, has marched every Saturday since November 2018.
Macron, in response to the protests, offered the poorest laborers and pensioners a package of concessions worth more than 10 billion euros ($11 billion) aimed at increasing their insufficient earnings.
The measure, however, failed to end the demonstrations, and the protests quickly spiraled into a broader movement.