Thousands of anti-government “yellow vest” demonstrators have rallied in the French capital as authorities sought to enforce a ban on protests in certain areas amid enhanced security measures to avoid a repeat of last week’s riots.
Protesters on Saturday gathered at Denfert-Rochereau square in southern Paris, before marching up north towards the tourist-heavy neighbourhood of Montmartre.
The interior ministry said 3,100 protested in Paris, with 8,300 nationwide.
The figures marked a decline from the 14,500 counted by mid-afternoon a week ago, with 10,000 in the capital alone.
The Champs-Elysees was almost empty except for a large police presence. Scores of shops were looted and ransacked last weekend, and some were set on fire by protesters.
Fear of more violence kept tourists away, and police shut down metro stations in the area as a precaution.
Dozens of police vehicles, including armoured trucks and water cannon, encircled the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the iconic avenue, with officers searching people’s bags and patrolling in front of boarded-up storefronts.
Paris police arrested 51 people by early afternoon, issued 29 fines and conducted 4,688 “preventive checks” on protesters entering the capital.
In Nice, police dispersed a few hundred protesters who gathered on a central plaza. The city was placed under high security measures as Chinese President Xi Jinping was expected to stay overnight on Sunday as part of his state visit to France.
Deploying the army
The new Paris police chief, Didier Lallement, who took charge following the destruction wrought by last week’s protests, said specific police units have been created to react faster to any violence.
About 6,000 police officers were deployed in the capital on Saturday and two drones were helping to monitor the demonstrations. French authorities also deployed soldiers to protect sensitive sites, allowing police forces to focus on maintaining order during the protests.
President Emmanuel Macron on Friday dismissed criticism from opposition leaders regarding the involvement of the military, saying they were not taking over police duties.
“Those trying to scare people, or to scare themselves, are wrong,” he said in Belgium’s capital, Brussels.
Christelle Camus, a “yellow vest” protester from a southern suburb of Paris, called the deployment of French soldiers to help ensure security “a great nonsense.”
“Since when do soldiers face a population? We are here in France. You would say that we are here in [North] Korea or in China. I never saw something like this,” she said.
Last week’s surge in violence came as support for the four-month-old “yellow vest” movement has been dwindling, mostly as a reaction to the riots by some protesters.
The rallies started in November to oppose a fuel tax raise but have expanded into a broader rejection of Macron’s economic policies, which protesters say favour businesses and the wealthy over ordinary French workers.
Macron countered by dropping the fuel tax raise and holding months of discussions with the public on France’s stagnant wages, high taxes and high unemployment.
The movement was named after the fluorescent garments that French motorists must carry in their vehicles for emergencies.