PARIS (AP) – Crowds of yellow-vested protesters angry at President Emmanuel Macron and France’s high taxes tried to march on the presidential palace Saturday, surrounded by exceptional numbers of police bracing for outbreaks of violence after the worst rioting in Paris in decades.
Rows of helmeted, thickly protected riot police blocked the demonstrators’ passage down the Champs-Elysees avenue toward the heart of presidential power. A ring of steel surrounded the Elysee Palace itself as police stationed trucks and reinforced steel barriers in streets throughout the entire neighbourhood.
Prized Paris monuments and normally bustling shopping meccas locked down and tens of thousands of police took position around France. Macron’s government warned that Saturday’s “yellow vest” protests in Paris will be hijacked by “radicalized and rebellious” crowds and become the most dangerous yet after three weeks of demonstrations.
The Eiffel Tower and Louvre Museum were among those that remained closed, fearing damage after rioting and looting last Saturday that saw 130 people injured.
Demonstrators waving French flags and wearing the movement’s signature neon vests gathered before dawn Saturday near the Arc de Triomphe, which was damaged in last week’s rioting. Others lined up for police searches and bag checks throughout central Paris.
By mid-morning, 343 people had been detained in Paris, according to a Paris police spokeswoman.
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Authorities deployed barricade-busting armoured vehicles and 8,000 police in the capital alone; nationwide, some 89,000 security forces fanned out to deter or confront troublemakers expected at multiple protests.
The grassroots movement began as resistance against a rise in taxes for diesel and gasoline, but quickly expanded to encompass frustration at stagnant incomes and the growing cost of living. Macron agreed to abandon the fuel tax hike, but that hasn’t defused the anger, embodied by the fluorescent safety vests that French motorists are required to keep in their cars.
Many members of the protest movement are calling for calm, and some struck a conciliatory tone after meeting the prime minister Friday night, in a last-minute bid to cool tempers.
But that didn’t deter many people from trying to march on the presidential palace Saturday.
“We are here to tell [Macron] our discontent. Me, I’m not here to break things because I have four children so I am going to try to be safe for them because they are afraid,” protester Myriam Diaz told the Associated Press. “But I still want to be here to say ‘Stop, that’s enough, this has to stop.'”
The movement has no clear leaders, and past protests have attracted extremists who hurled projectiles at police.
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Interior Minister Christophe Castaner urged calm. “I ask the yellow vests that want to bring about a peaceful message to not go with the violent people. We know that the violent people are only strong because they hide themselves within the yellow vests, which hampers the security forces,” he said Saturday.
Macron himself, the target of much of the protesters’ ire, has been largely invisible in recent days, leaving his prime minister and government to try to negotiate with protesters. Out of the media spotlight, Macron met Friday night with riot police being deployed in Paris Saturday.
Four people have been killed in accidents since the unrest began Nov. 17. Christmas markets, national soccer matches and countless other events have been canceled or hurt by the protests.
Parts of Paris looked like they were bracing for a hurricane, with boards on windows covering up the Christmas decorations. Police removed any materials from the streets that could be used as weapons, especially at construction sites in high-risk areas.
Protesters also blocked roads, roundabouts and tollbooths elsewhere in France. Offshoot movements have emerged elsewhere, and yellow-vest protests were planned Saturday in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Srdjan Nedeljkovic, Philippe Marion and Milos Krivokapic contributed.