Paris (AFP) – Anti-government protesters clashed with French police on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Saturday, leaving the famed avenue cloaked in tear gas on a fresh day of demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner blamed the unrest on far-right agitators who ignored a ban on demonstrations in the area and who threw projectiles at security forces.
The protest movement began a week ago when hundreds of thousands of protesters wearing high-visibility yellow vests blockaded roads in a largely spontaneous outpouring of anger about higher diesel taxes.
There was still potential for the enduring anger to snowball into a major stand-off between the government and opponents of Macron’s pro-business agenda who are voicing a wider range of grievances.
However this time, while there was major disruption on roads across the country, turnout was lower than a week ago and a call from protest leaders to block the capital looked to have failed.
By mid-afternoon, 81,000 protestors had been counted across France, compared with about 244,000 at the same time last week, figures from the interior ministry showed.
Around 8,000 took to the streets in Paris, with about 5,000 on the Champs-Elysees.
– ‘Can’t handle it’ –
Over the last week, two people died and over 750 people, including 136 police officers, were injured in sometimes violent demonstrations that have shone a light on frustrations in many rural areas and small towns of France.
The “yellow vests” hail overwhelmingly from non-urban areas of France. They are strident about feeling overlooked and penalised by policies they see as being pushed through by elitist politicians in Paris.
Former investment banker Macron was elected on a pledge to put more money in workers’ pockets. But the effects of his pro-business reforms on unemployment and purchasing power have been limited so far.
Many of the often low-income “yellow vest” protesters are particularly incensed at his decision to hike anti-pollution taxes on diesel, while scrapping a wealth tax on the rich.
“I’m not just fighting against the price of fuel. It’s about tax, what we pay,” protester Catherine Marguier told AFP at a pay booth on the A81 motorway near the village of La Gravelle in northwest France.
“People can’t handle it any more. We need to change the government, the people at the top,” she said.
Around her, hundreds of “yellow vests” had commandeered the booth and were allowing motorists to pass through for free.
“We’re not there to be fleeced,” read the slogan on one banner.
Revolts against taxes have been a feature of French public life for centuries. Citizens still pay some of the highest in Europe as a percentage of GDP, and fuel-price protests are a common modern occurrence.
Previous rounds pitting the government against drivers took place in 1995, 2000, 2004, and 2008, often when tax increases coincided with high oil prices — as they have this year.
For political analyst Jean-Yves Camus, the French tend to rise up against taxes in particular when they feel the country’s revered public services are failing them.
“The acceptance of taxes is based on the notion of redistribution,” he said. “It declines when public services recede, the safety nets dwindle, and the gap between rich and poor increases.”
– Le Pen blamed –
Opposition parties on the hard left and right have cheered on the protesters.
A poll by the Odoxa research group for Le Figaro newspaper this week found that 77 percent of respondents described it as “justified”.
Castaner blamed the clashes on the Champs-Elysees on far-right leader Marine Le Pen. The police were facing groups “who notably had responded to the call of Marine Le Pen and want to attack the country’s institutions just as they want to attack (government) lawmakers,” the minister said.
Le Pen rejected the remarks, saying she had never called for violence and claiming the government was trying to make her the scapegoat.
“We have just demonstrated peacefully, and we were teargassed,” said Christophe, 49, who travelled from the Isere region in eastern France with his wife to protest in the capital. “We see how we are welcomed in Paris.”
Macron, who is under pressure to tackle pollution ahead of European Parliament elections next year in which the environment is expected to feature prominently, has refused to back down on taxing polluters.
But with his ratings languishing at record lows of under 30 percent, he has sought to present a more empathetic side.
“We have heard the message of citizens,” one of his aides said on Thursday.