More 'yellow vests' but violence wanes in French protests

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Joseph Schmid and Adrien Marotte
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Paris (AFP) - Thousands of demonstrators turned out across France on Saturday for new protests against President Emmanuel Macron, amid a marked decline in violence despite dozens of arrests and clashes with police in Paris and other cities.

The ninth round of "yellow vest" rallies since November began calmly amid a heavy police deployment of some 80,000 officers nationwide, including 5,000 in the capital.

Many sang the "Marseillaise" national anthem, while others shouted "Macron resign!" or "Free Christophe," a reference to the ex-boxer filmed viciously beating two officers during last week's protest.

For the first time organisers of the Paris march deployed teams wearing white arm bands to corral the march that began near the Place de la Bastille.

"We're guiding the march to make sure they keep to the route and avoid confrontations, so they don't respond to police provocations," one of the "white bands," who gave his name as Anthony, told AFP.

But scores of protesters later clashed with riot police at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, prompting volleys of tear gas and water cannon as security forces prevented them from reaching the heavily fortified Champs-Elysees.

The protesters began to disperse as night fell, however, and police began removing armoured vehicles and trucks in an atmosphere of relative calm -- TV images later showed a guitarist crooning not far from the police lines.

- 'Macron resign!' -

Around 32,000 people had hit the streets nationwide as of 2:00 pm (1300 GMT), the interior ministry said, up from 26,000 last week but still far below the nearly 300,000 when the "yellow vest" protests began two months ago.

And in Paris the prosecutor's office said 74 people had been detained for questioning by the afternoon, well above the 35 detained last Saturday, as participation rose to some 8,000 protesters from 3,500 last week.

Dozens were also arrested elsewhere including the central city of Bourges, the site of another major rally aimed at drawing people farther from the capital.

"I get by on 1,200 euros ($1,380) a month, and taxes eat away at my savings every day. They're taking away everything we have," said "Vercingetorix," a 74-year-old retired archeologist dressed as the legendary Gallic resister to Roman rule.

"We want parliament dissolved. Macron has to stop ignoring us and realise how bad things are," said William Lebrethon, a 59-year-old construction worker amid signs saying "Macron resign!" and "France is angry."

A few hundred protesters later burned trash cans amid cat-and-mouse clashes with police in Bourges' historic centre, and skirmishes also broke out in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille and other cities.

The demonstrations also spilled over the border into eastern Belgium late on Friday, where one of around 25 protesters manning a blockade died after being hit by a truck, Belgian media reported.

And in London hundreds wearing yellow vests took to the streets as well, demanding a general election and an end to austerity programmes.

- 'Condescending and arrogant' -

The yellow vest movement, which began as protests over high fuel taxes, has snowballed into a wholesale rejection of Macron and his policies, which are seen as favouring the wealthy at the expense of rural and small-town France.

Officials had feared bigger and more violent protests than last week, when demonstrators rammed a forklift truck through the main doors of a government ministry in Paris.

But many demonstrators say the violence cuts both ways, pointing to social media footage of a police officer repeatedly striking an unarmed man on the ground during a protest last week in Toulon.

Macron has called for a national debate starting next week to hear voters' grievances, hoping to sate demands for more of a say in national law-making and tamp down the protesters' anger.

He has already unveiled a 10-billion-euro ($11.5 billion) financial relief package for low earners, and axed the planned fuel tax hike.

But the public consultations risk being hobbled by record levels of distrust towards politicians and representatives of the state.

A poll by the Cevipof political sciences institute released Friday showed 77 percent of respondents thought politicians inspired "distrust", "disgust" or "boredom".

And Macron may not have endeared himself to many voters on Friday, when he told a gathering at the Elysee Palace that "too many of our citizens think they can get something without making the necessary effort."

"I work 60 hours a week and don't even make the minimum wage!" said Maurice, a 60-year-old carpenter at a protest in Strasbourg.

"Macron goes too far, he's condescending and arrogant. We want the system to change," added his wife, declining to give her name.


Video: Yellow Vest Protests Continue In France For 8th Straight Week