PARIS (AP) – A strong police presence deployed in Paris on Saturday for planned demonstrations by the “yellow vest” protesters, with authorities repeating calls for calm after protests in previous weekends turned violent.
Security forces in riot gear were positioned around central train stations and along the famed Champs-Elysees boulevard, where shops were closed and their windows boarded up in anticipation of the protests. Authorities have said about 8,000 police and 14 armoured vehicles were being deployed in the French capital.
Last weekend, groups of demonstrators smashed and looted stores, clashing with police and setting up burning barricades in the streets.
The “yellow vest” movement, which takes its name from the fluorescent safety vests French motorists must all have in their vehicles, emerged in mid-November as a protest against fuel tax increases. It soon morphed into an expression of rage about the high cost of living in France and a sense that President Emanuel Macron’s government is detached from the everyday struggles of workers.
There was a strong police presence Saturday outside the central Saint Lazare train station, where police in riot gear checked bags. More than 20 police vans and a water cannon truck idled nearby.
Hundreds of people began converging on the Champs-Elysees in the morning.
“We’re here to represent all our friends and members of our family who can’t come to protest, or because they’re scared,” said Pierre Lamy, a 27-year-old industrial worker wearing a yellow vest and with a French flag draped over his shoulders as he walked to the protest with three friends.
He said the protests had long stopped being about the fuel tax and had turned into a movement for economic justice.
“Everything’s coming up now,” Lamy said. “We’re being bled dry.”
Macron on Friday called for calm during the demonstrations, and the French government reiterated the call online for demonstrators to remain peaceful.
“Protesting is a right. So let’s know how to exercise it,” the government tweeted from its official account, with a 34-second video which begins with images of historic French protests and recent footage of “yellow vests” rallying peacefully before turning to violence.
“Protesting is not smashing. Protesting is not smashing our heritage. Protesting is not smashing our businesses. … Protesting is not smashing our republic,” the video says.
Elena Becatoros contributed to this report.