France saw a fifth weekend of protests by defiant gilets jaunes who ignored government calls to stay home following this week’s attack on Strasbourg’s Christmas market, The Observer reports.
In Paris hundreds gathered at the Champs-Elysées and at Place de l’Opéra, though the authorities said the numbers were well down on previous weeks.
At both sites, demonstrators found themselves facing a massive show of strength from the security services. Protesters were searched as riot police, gendarmes with armoured vehicles, mounted police and plainclothed police encircled, refusing to allow them to disperse en masse down spur roads.
Some gilets jaunes attempted to bring a festive note to the gatherings; at Opéra there was a Santa gilet jaune and another protester dressed as a cockerel. On the Champs-Elysées, members of a nude performance group painted silver and wearing red Phrygian caps – a symbol of liberty and the republic – engaged in a silent face-off with riot police.
It has been a long week for Emmanuel Macron who, hours after trying to diffuse the most explosive crisis of his 18 months in office by making concessions to the gilets jaunes, was dealing with a suspected terrorist attack on Strasbourg’s celebrated Christmas market.
On Tuesday, a sombre Macron, accused by gilets jaunes of being arrogant and out of touch, announced a €15bn (£13.4bn) package of concessions including a rise in the minimum wage in a televised address to the nation.
Twenty-four hours later in Strasbourg, a 29-year-old man shot at crowds and stabbed passersby, killing four and injuring a dozen others. The suspect disappeared for 48 hours before being spotted in a south-east district of the city and was shot dead by police.
The government had asked protesters to suspend their planned “Act Five” in the wake of the Strasbourg attack. On Saturday, across the country, thousands ignored it.Hélène Dejesse, 60, an artist, had travelled from Charente in south-west France to attend Saturday’s protest in Paris, saying she was “not interested” in Macron’s concessions.
“There would have been many more of us here, but they were stopping gilets jaunes from getting on the train. They will say the movement is running out of steam, but that’s because people couldn’t get here.”
The gilets jaunes began as a grass-roots movement and was initially sparked by a new eco-tax, since dropped. It has morphed into a vehicle for the expression of anti-government and anti-Macron anger.
In past weeks, protests have degenerated into running battles between protesters and police, and seen fringe elements torch cars, smash and loot shops and businesses, and deface public monuments.
Without any structure or official leaders, it has been difficult to establish what gilets jaunes want and who the government can negotiate with.
On Saturday, one branch of the movement La France en Colère (Angry France) issued widely acclaimed demands for France to be governed by RIC (Référendum d’Initiative Citoyenne, or Citizens’ Initiative Referendum), for the French constitution to be rewritten to allow greater political power to the people and a reduction in tax on essential goods, including food, heating, water and clothing.
“Our elected representatives need to be controlled when they betray us,” Dejesse said.
Guillaume Deselly, also an artist from Charentes, blamed the French government for encouraging protester violence.
“They let the casseurs (vandals) do what they like so they can discredit the gilets jaunes movement,” he said.
Nurses Sophie Portejoie, 45, Christelle Tesson, 49, health assistant Virginie Rabaud, 32, and student Ophélie Joaquim, 22, had come in from the Essonne, just south of Paris.
“We’re pacifists and of course we’re afraid there might be violence, but we have come anyway, otherwise we will gain nothing in life. We’re fighting against precarity,” Portejoie said.
“There’s too much injustice between those at the top of society and those at the bottom.”
Tesson added: “We’re doing this for our children. Mine are both in work but they have small salaries with which to pay big rents and charges. It’s one tax after another. We can take no more.”
Speaking from the European council on Friday, Macron called for an end to the street protests.
“Our country needs calm, needs order, needs to return to normal,” he said. He called on demonstrators to “sign up to the democratic process”.
The Paris police prefecture said there were 2,200 demonstrators in Paris on Saturday, well down on previous weeks, and well outnumbered by the 8,000 members of the security forces.
At Place de l’Opéra there was a minute’s silence for the victims of the Strasbourg attack.
Outside of Paris, gilets jaunes maintained their protests and blockades on many roundabouts outside cities and there were demonstrations in Bordeaux, Marseille and Rennes, though again, police said numbers were well down.