French police have detained hundreds of people ahead of fresh “yellow vest” protests for a fourth running weekend in Paris as further violence is looming large.
Police arrested nearly 300 people as protesters are gathered at dawn on the famous Champs-Elysees on Saturday morning.
“We had to come to Paris to be heard,” said protester Herve Benoit. He said they demand the government of President Emanuel Macron to boost people’s spending power and increase taxes on the wealthiest.
Authorities have deployed thousands of police and security forces to the capital and other cities on Saturday as the country is on high alert amid fears of further violence.
They urged shops and restaurant around the famous Champs-Elysees to shutter. Museums, metro stations and the Tour Eiffel will also remain closed over the weekend.
The protests began in opposition to a rise in fuel tax, but the government says it has been hijacked by ultra-violent protesters.
France’s interior minister Christophe Castaner said “large scale” security operation would be launched on Saturday as they expect radical elements” infiltrate planned “yellow vest” protests.
He said that “only a few thousand people” are expected to descend on the capital after the 8,000 protesters counted last weekend, “but among them are ultraviolent individuals.”
“These past three weeks have seen the birth of a monster that has escaped its creators,” he said, vowing “zero tolerance” towards those aiming to wreak further destruction and mayhem.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe also announced on Friday evening that 89,000 police officers will be on duty across the country and armored vehicles will also be deployed in Paris, which was the scene of worst riots in decades last weekend.
The “yellow vest” movement began three weeks ago, but has snowballed to take in other issues, including education reforms. But the demonstrations led to the worst violence in decades; dozens of vehicles were torched, shops looted and the Arc de Triomphe war memorial was wrecked. Only hundreds were arrested and scores injured in Paris.
President Emmanuel Macron, who is are expected to address nation early next week, is now experiencing the biggest crisis since being elected 18 months ago.
He has s not spoken in public since he condemned last Saturday’s disturbances while at the G20 summit in Argentina. Opposition leaders accused him of turning the Elysee Palace into a bunker where had taken cover.
The 40-year old president, who is under mounting pressure, has left the issue largely to his prime minister to deal in public with the turmoil and offer concessions.
Prime Minister Philippe met a delegation of self-described “moderate” yellow vests who have urged people not to join the protests.
After the meeting a movement spokesman, Christophe Chalencon, said the premier had “listened to us and promised to take our demands to the president”.
“Now we await Mr Macron. I hope he will speak to the people of France as a father, with love and respect and that he will take strong decisions,” he said.
Following last weekend’s riots in central Paris and dozens of other cities and towns across France, the government decided to abandon its plan to raise the fuel tax next year.
But protesters want the president to go further to help hard-pressed households, including an increase to the minimum wage, lower taxes, higher salaries, cheaper energy, better retirement provisions.
Some of them have demanded Macro’s resignation. They say the president is part of an elitist coterie that neither understands, nor cares how they live.
Police used tear gas against students protesting over educational reforms, in Lyon on Friday. According to local media, dozens of protesters were arrested.
Also on Thursday, police arrested dozens of high-school students protesting in Mantes-la-Jolie west of Paris. Images of detained students who were kneeling in mud with their hands behind their back or on the head, circulated on social media, and sparked outrage across the country. Footage shows children and teenagers, some reportedly as young as 12 years old.
The education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, said that the images had to be seen in the context of police responding to student violence. “There are shocking images because we are in a climate of exceptional violence.”
More than 700 students were arrested across France on Thursday alone.