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Paris on knife-edge ahead of new 'yellow vest' protests

Paris on knife-edge ahead of new 'yellow vest' protests

People are at work to build a wooden wall aimed at protecting the shop window of the drugstore publicis, on Dec 7, 2018 in Paris, on the eve of a fourth wave of "yellow vest" anti-government protests. (Photo: AFP/Eric Feferberg)

PARIS: Businesses in Paris battened down the hatches on Friday (Dec 7) and streets were cleared of material that could be used as weapons amid fears of further violence during a fourth round of "yellow vest" protests.

The French capital experienced its worst riots in decades last weekend, plunging President Emmanuel Macron's government into its deepest crisis so far.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will meet Friday evening with a delegation of self-described "moderate" yellow vests, who have urged people not to descend on Paris on Saturday.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has vowed "zero tolerance" towards those aiming to wreak further destruction and mayhem, after dozens of vehicles were torched, shops looted and the Arc de Triomphe war memorial was sacked last Saturday.

"These past three weeks have seen the birth of a monster that has escaped its creators," Castaner told a news conference. "It's time now for dialogue."

Castaner said he expected "only a few thousand people" after the 8,000 counted in Paris last weekend, "but among them are ultraviolent individuals".

Shops around the famous Champs-Elysees boulevard - epicentre of last week's battle - were busy boarding up their windows and emptying them of merchandise on Friday.

"We can't take the risk," said a manager at a Ducati motorcycle dealership as employees loaded luxury Italian racers onto trucks for safekeeping.


Much of the city will effectively be on lockdown.

The operators of landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and Orsay museums said they would be closed, along with operas, theatres and libraries.

Major department stores, whose elaborate Christmas displays are a huge draw for tourists and locals alike, will be shut as well.

Yellow vests hang on the rooftop of an apartment building on Dec 7, 2018 in Marseille, southern France. (Photo: AP/Claude Paris)

Nearly 40 Metro stops in the city centre will be closed, and dozens of bus lines curtailed.

Foreign governments are watching developments closely.

The US embassy issued a warning to Americans in Paris to "keep a low profile and avoid crowds", while Belgium, advised citizens planning to visit Paris over the weekend to postpone their visit. Numerous other European countries issued warnings.

Macron this week gave in to some of the protesters' demands for measures to help the poor and struggling middle classes, including scrapping a planned increase in fuel taxes and freezing electricity and gas prices in 2019.

But the "yellow vests", many of whom who have become increasingly radicalised, are holding out for more.

Calls on social media for protesters to attack the police or march on the presidential palace have especially rattled the authorities.

Philippe said that 8,000 police would be mobilised in Paris out of 89,000 nationwide, and that a dozen armoured vehicles would be deployed - a first in the capital.

The police were already facing accusations on Friday of being heavy-handed.

A video showed officers in riot gear barking orders at dozens of high-school pupils kneeling on the ground with their hands behind their heads following a demonstration in Mantes-la-Jolie near Paris.


The "yellow vests", named after the high-visibility safety jackets worn by demonstrators, began blocking roads, fuel depots and shopping centres around France on Nov 17 over soaring fuel prices this year.

Since then the movement has snowballed into a wider revolt against Macron's economic policies and his top-down approach to power.

Protests at dozens of schools over stricter university entrance requirements, and a call by farmers for demonstrations next week, have added to a sense of a government under siege.

And the hard-line CGT union, hoping to capitalise on the movement, has called for rail and Metro strikes next Friday to demand immediate wage and pension increases.

The protesters accuse the centrist president of favouring the rich and city-dwellers over those trying to make ends meet in car-dependent rural and small-town France.

Many are calling on him to resign.

But Castaner estimated Friday that just 10,000 people were taking part nationwide.

"10,000 is not the people, it's not France," he argued, despite polls showing the protesters enjoying strong public support.

Macron's "cardinal sin", in the eyes of the protesters, was slashing wealth taxes shortly after taking office.

The 40-year-old former investment banker, dubbed "the president of the rich" by critics, has so far ruled out re-imposing the "fortune tax" on high-earners, arguing it is necessary to boost investment and create jobs.

But his climbdown on fuel taxes - intended to help France transition to a greener economy - marks a major departure for a leader who had prided himself on not giving into street protests.

Macron himself has not commented publicly on the crisis since his return from the G20 summit in Argentina a week ago.

He is expected to address the protests in a speech early next week.

Source: AFP/ec


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