By Agence France-Presse
Thousands of police fanned out across central Paris and other French cities Saturday for the 19th consecutive week of “yellow vest” protests, with officials vowing to prevent a repeat of the rioting and looting that marred last week’s rally in the capital.
Several hundreds of demonstrators began marching shortly after midday from a square in the south of Paris towards the Sacre-Coeur basilica at Montmartre in the north, with banners calling for President Emmanuel Macron to “Get Lost!”
Authorities banned demonstrations in a large area in the west of the city, including the Champs-Elysees, the scene of last Saturday’s rampage by hundreds of black-clad agitators.
Dozens of police vehicles, including armored trucks and water cannons, 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.
At the opposite end of the avenue access was completely blocked to the Place de la Concorde, near the presidential palace and the National Assembly, and two drones were flying over the capital to track any protesters’ movements.
As of midday 31 people had been detained in Paris and 15 others fined for protesting in the outlawed sectors, authorities said.
Banks and other businesses remained shut in several parts of Paris, their windows protected with planks of wood, and some schools had cancelled Saturday classes in anticipation of further violence.
Protest bans were also in effect in the centers of Toulouse, Bordeaux, Dijon, Rennes and the southern city of Nice, where Chinese President Xi Jinping is to meet his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron this weekend.
Dozens of people who defied the ban at Nice’s Garibaldi square near the port were quickly surrounded by security forces and later evacuated, with six people arrested.
Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet warned that police would show “no mercy” with rioters.
Bringing in the army
Macron is under pressure to avoid a repeat of last week’s sacking of the Champs-Elysees, where over 100 shops were damaged, looted or set alight during seven hours of rioting by mainly masked, black-clad protesters.
The government has redeployed soldiers from its Sentinelle anti-terror force to guard public buildings, freeing up the 6,000 deployed police in Paris to tackle any flare-ups of violence.
There was no sign of the soldiers in much of central Paris on Saturday, but the move drew fierce criticism nonetheless from opposition parties, who have accused the government of playing with fire.
On social media, several “yellow vest” leaders urged caution, warning demonstrators against appearing to countenance the violence by far-left or far-right infiltrators.
In a YouTube post, truck driver Eric Drouet called on protesters not to try to return to the Champs-Elysees.
“It’s a very, very bad idea. You know what image they’re trying to create of us,” he said, predicting a “quiet Saturday”.
Macron’s government drew fierce criticism over its handling of last week’s protests when police appeared to hang back during the wave of rioting and vandalism that swept the Champs-Elysees.
Analysts say the authorities may have been reluctant to engage the rioters after the dozens of injuries sustained by participants in previous protests.
But this week officials vowed “zero tolerance” for more violence.
“He needs to show the world that the government has a handle on the country and on the capital,” said Sylvian, the leader of a team of repair workers still clearing away debris on the avenue on Friday.
The Paris police chief was fired over his handling of the violence, which saw dozens of windows shattered by people hurling paving stones and wielding hammers and other makeshift weapons.
The protests began in rural France on November 17 over fuel tax increases and quickly ballooned into a full-scale anti-government rebellion.
In a Facebook video this week, Maxime Nicolle one of the movement’s figureheads, explained the periodic rioting in Paris and other cities as the result of “40 years of being beaten psychologically and financially” by successive governments.
“It’s a bit as if a battered woman beats up her boyfriend and you say she’s the violent one,” he said.