Clashes, low turnout at new French 'yellow vest' protests

Clashes, low turnout at new French 'yellow vest' protests

Clashes, low turnout at new French 'yellow vest' protests

Hopes among France's "yellow vest" protest movement for a mass September comeback failed to materialise on Saturday as only hundreds demonstrated in the capital Paris, with some clashing with police.

Around 1,000 people gathered for two marches in Paris, with police firing tear gas grenades into a group that set off from Place du Wagram in the city's northwest after they left their planned route.

An AFP journalist saw at least one car and rubbish bins set on fire and street furniture toppled by participants.

Tens of thousands rallied in 2018-19 under the yellow vests' banner against President Emmanuel Macron's perceived prioritisation of business and the rich over struggling ordinary families.

The demonstrations sometimes descended into scenes of violence and looting that drew harsh police responses, which were in turn criticised in France and beyond.

With its weak turnout Saturday, "the movement is dead, I'll say that clearly, but we're here because we have nothing to lose. This is a kind of last stand," said Michael, a 43-year old protester in the crowd at Place de Wagram before the march got started.

A second march starting from central Place de la Bourse saw protesters brandish signs with modest demands like "being able to fill your fridge properly".

"It's good to be here together, even if there aren't enough people, you wonder why people aren't open" to the marchers' message, wondered a 50-year-old civil servant who asked to remain anonymous.

He said that "social and economic robbery" and "our fundamental freedoms increasingly under attack" had driven him out onto the streets - before adding that "this fake Covid saga is being used to cover up the offensive against our rights".

Pensioners Pascale and Patrick, who had travelled from Crolles in southeast France, were sure that "the movement isn't running out of steam."

Veterans of the movement's demonstrations at traffic roundabouts in provincial towns, the pair said they "don't want this world for our children and grandchildren, where we're subjugated by this oligarchy. We're anti-capitalist, anti-system, former hippies and yellow vests."

Elsewhere in France, several hundred yellow vests gathered in southwestern city Toulouse in defiance of a ban authorities said had been imposed over coronavirus infection risks.

Police tried to disperse the group with tear gas, a scene matched in Lyon, while people also gathered in Bordeaux and other towns.

"I didn't back the yellow vests at first but things have only got worse for people in poverty. Nothing's changed after two years of struggle," said a 53-year-old man calling himself Dodo at the Toulouse protest.

In central Paris, hundreds of police officers were deployed at the Champs-Elysees avenue where authorities banned demonstrations.

Officers checked the identity cards of passers-by and searched their bags, while many storefronts were boarded up in anticipation of looting which occurred repeatedly during last year's violence.

"We can't have destruction and chaos on the Champs-Elysees," Paris police chief Didier Lallement said Saturday morning, calling the avenue "a showcase for our country."

Ahead of Saturday's protests, police had said they expected up to 5,000 people to attend, with 1,000 of them potentially violent.

Some 222 people had been arrested by around 3:45 pm (1345 GMT) especially for carrying objects like screwdrivers, ice axes and knives that "have no place at a demonstration," the police posted on Twitter.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin had announced Friday slightly tougher rules on how police use controversial rubber bullets and other crowd-control weapons ahead of the expected marches.

Officers must now ask supervisors for permission to fire the projectiles, which have been responsible for injuries. Jerome Rodrigues emerged as a prominent leader after losing an eye to a police rubber bullet during a protest.