French 'yellow vests' rally in fresh round of protests

Paris police fired water cannon and tear gas to repel “yellow vest” demonstrators from around the Arc de Triomphe monument on Saturday in the ninth straight weekend of protests against French President Emmanuel Macron’s economic reforms. Thousands of protesters also marched noisily but peacefully through the Grands Boulevards shopping area in northern Paris close to where a major gas explosion in a bakery killed two firefighters and injured nearly 50 people early on Saturday.

Central Paris was in lockdown against another feared eruption of violence by radical elements in the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vest) movement, with bridges across the Seine river closed and official buildings such as parliament and the Elysee presidential palace protected by police barriers. Groups of protesters also gathered on and around Paris’s famous Champs Elysees boulevard, the scene of disturbances in recent weeks, many of them calling loudly for Macron to resign. “Macron, we are going to tear down your place!” one banner read. Around the 19th-century Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs Elysee, riot police unleashed water cannon and tear gas at militant yellow-vest protesters after being pelted with stones and paint, witnesses said. By mid-afternoon there had been no major clashes with police unlike in previous weeks. In Paris over 50 people were arrested, some for carrying objects that could be used as weapons. More than 80,000 police were on duty for the protests nationwide, including 5,000 in Paris.

Hundreds of officers were also on guard on the Champs-Elysees, where banks, jewellery stores and other shops had boarded up windows in anticipation of renewed looting and violence. Yet many cafes and retailers on the iconic avenue remained open for business, as several thousands of protesters marched calmly from the Place de la Bastille towards the Arc de Triomphe early in the afternoon. Many sang the Marseillaise, the national anthem, while others held signs saying, "Insecurity is not a job!"
There were also thousands of marchers in the cities of Bordeaux and Toulon in southern France as well as Strasbourg in the east and the central city of Bourges. Bourges authorities said nearly 5,000 yellow vests stuck to the designated demonstration area but another 500 had pushed into the city center that was off-limits for demonstrators. Many businesses in Bourges had boarded themselves up to avoid damage from protesters and authorities had removed street furniture and building site materials that could be used for barricades. In Strasbourg, up to 2,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the European Parliament building and later marched to the center of the city on the Rhine river border with Germany. Protesters set garbage bins ablaze and police fired a few tear gas grenades, but no serious violence or looting was reported.
Macron, often criticized for a monarchical manner, is to launch a national debate on 15 January to try to mollify the yellow vest protesters, whose unrest has shaken his administration. The debate, to be held on the internet and in town halls, will focus on four themes - taxes, green energy, institutional reform and citizenship. But aides to Macron have said changing the course of Macron’s reforms aimed at liberalizing the economy will be off limits.

The protests also spilled over the border into eastern Belgium late on Friday, where one of around 25 protesters manning a blockade died after being hit by a truck, Belgian media reported. Officials had warned of bigger and more violent protests than last week, when demonstrators rammed a forklift truck through the main doors of a government ministry in Paris.

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