The so-called“Yellow Vests”have called for new demonstrations and road blockades Saturday across France, including the capital, where a demonstration last weekend turned violent.
Hundreds of people gathered at the top of the Champs-Elysées on Saturday morning. Access to the avenue was closed to cars and strictly monitored by police with identity checks and bag inspections.
Police briefly used tear gas to disperse the crowd as some tried to force their way through.
A Paris police spokeswoman said 16 people had already been arrested. Officials fear far-right and far-left groups plan to infiltrate the movement.
The protests, which began with motorists demonstrating against a fuel tax hike, now involve a broad range of demands related to the country’s high cost of living.
French PresidentEmmanuel Macronhas sought to douse the anger by promising three months of nationwide talks on how best to transform France into a low-carbon economy without penalising the poor.
He also vowed to slow the rate of increase in fuel taxes if international oil prices rise too rapidly but only after a tax hike due in January.
On Friday, the government tried —mostly in vain— to talk to representatives of the “Yellow Vest” movement, named after the high-visibility jackets which motorists are required to carry in their cars.
Prime MinisterEdouard Philippeinvited eight representatives to join him in his office. But only two turned up, and one walked out after being told he could not invite TV cameras in to broadcast the encounter live to the nation.
‘We want our dignity back’
Asked later by reporters what his demands were, Jason Herbert said: “We want our dignity back and we want to be able to live from our work, which is absolutely not the case today.”
Emerging from an hour of talks with the second protester, Philippe said they mainly discussed spending power and that his door “is always open” for further dialogue.
One of the chief difficulties faced by the government in talking to protesters is their reluctance to appoint leaders.
The movement, organised through social media, has steadfastly refused to align with any political party or trade union.
The “Yellow Vests’ include many pensioners and has been most active in small urban and rural areas where it has blocked roads, closed motorway toll booths, and even walled up the entrance to tax offices.
Two people have died and hundreds have been injured in the protests which opinion polls suggest still attract the support of two out of three French people.
The anger has reached out to French overseas territories, especially on the Indian island of Reunion.
The minister for overseas territories, Annick Girardin, who was dispatched to the island to talk to protesters, was forced to cut short a meeting Friday with demonstrators after they booed her and shouted “Macron, resign!”
Left-wing leader and former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and right-wing leader Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, also a former presidential candidate, have said they will attend the latest Paris rally.
The first day of protest in France on November 17 saw some 300,000 people turn out nationwide to man roadblocks, with sporadic protests continuing through the week.
Last Saturday the government suggested that only about 100,000 took part, prompting suggestions that protests were on the wane.
But many suggested that Macron’s speech on Tuesday rekindled opposition.
“What we need is something tangible, not just smoke and mirrors,” said Yoann Allard, a 30-year-old farm hand speaking of Macron’s peace offers.
Trade union leaders, who met Friday with Philippe, have called for a moratorium on January’s tax hike, a suggestion which some pro-Macron members of parliament have started to endorse.
The movement has spilled across to neighbouring Belgium, where anti-riot officers used water cannon Friday to disperse stone-throwing “yellow vest” protesters who burned two police vehicles in the centre of Brussels.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, and REUTERS)