PARIS (AP) – French police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators in Paris on Saturday, as thousands gathered in the capital and beyond and staged road blockades to vent anger against rising fuel taxes.
Thousands of police were deployed nationwide to contain the eighth day of demonstrations in which two people have been killed since they started Nov. 17 as protests against tax. But the demonstrations have quickly morphed into a rebuke of President Emmanuel Macron’s tenure and the perceived elitism of the French ruling class.
Tense clashes on the Champs-Elysees saw police face off with protesters who burned plywood, wielded placards reading “Death to Taxes” and upturned a large vehicle.
There were no immediate reports of injuries, but 18 were detained for various acts including for “throwing projectiles,” Paris police told The Associated Press.
“It’s going to trigger a civil war and me, like most other citizens, we’re all ready,” said Benjamin Vrignaud, a 21-year-old protester from Chartres.
“They take everything from us. They steal everything from us,” said 21-year-old Laura Cordonnier.
The famed avenue was speckled with plumes of smoke and neon – owing to the colour of the vests that the myriad self-styled “yellow jacket” protesters don. French drivers are required to keep neon security vests in their vehicles.
Authorities said that 5,000 protesters flooded the Champs-Elysees alone, with 23,000 protesters in total nationwide.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner denounced protesters from the far-right whom he called “rebellious,” as he accused National Assembly leader Marine Le Pen of encouraging them.
But the Interior Ministry played down the scale of Saturday’s demonstrations by highlighting that last week’s protest comprised more than 120,000 protesters across the country.
The unrest is proving a major challenge for embattled Macron, who’s suffering in the polls.
He’s the focus of rage for the demonstrators who accuse the pro-business centrist of indifference to the struggles of ordinary French.
Macron has so far held strong and insisted the fuel tax rises are a necessary pain to reduce France’s dependence on fossil fuels and fund renewable energy investments – a cornerstone of his reforms of the nation. He will defend fresh plans to make the “energy transition” easier on Tuesday.
On Saturday, Paris deployed some 3,000 security forces, notably around tourist-frequented areas, after an unauthorized attempt last week to march on the presidential Elysee Palace.
Authorities said protesters have so far not breached a no-go zone set up by authorities around key areas including the presidential palace and the National Assembly on the Left Bank of the Seine River.
But authorities are struggling because the movement has no clear leader and has attracted a motley group of people with broadly varying demands.
A man caused a dramatic standoff with police Friday when he donned a neon vest and brandished an apparent grenade at a supermarket in the western city of Angers. He was later arrested.
Taxes on diesel fuel have gone up seven euro cents (nearly eight U.S. cents) and are to keep climbing in the coming years, Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne has said. The tax on gasoline is to increase 4 euro cents. Gasoline currently costs about 1.64 euros a liter in Paris ($7.06 a gallon), slightly more than diesel.
“When tax is no longer agreed to, it’s the start of revolutions in France,” far left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon told BFMTV.
Chris Den Hond and Patrick Hermensen contributed to this report.