French student protests intensify alongside 'yellow vest' revolt

Paris (AFP) –


Around 200 French high schools were blocked or disrupted Thursday by students protesting a raft of education overhauls, on a fourth day of action called to coincide with anti-government demonstrations which have rocked the country in recent weeks.

Dozens of people wearing face masks threw Molotov cocktails, torched trash bins and clashed with police in several cities during violent protests ahead of a call for nationwide demonstrations on Friday.

"The situations are quite varied, with total or partial blockages, barricades to control access, burning pallets," an education ministry official told AFP.

Although the students are demanding an end to testing overhauls and stricter university entrance requirements, they have seized on the momentum of the ongoing "yellow vest" protests against President Emmanuel Macron.

"We're the ones who are going to eventually have to pay higher fuel prices," said Ines, one of around 150 high school students demonstrating in the southern Paris suburb of Cachan.

The "yellow vest" protests began on November 17 in opposition to rising fuel taxes, but they have since ballooned into a broad challenge to Macron's pro-business agenda and style of governing.

The government announced Wednesday it would cancel planned increases in fuel tax due to take effect in January in a bid to appease the mostly low-income protesters from small-town and rural France.

"With the yellow vests as a pretext, we're seeing all sorts of individuals joining with people demonstrating in good faith, including students, and this is leading to serious violence," Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told BFM television.

At least two cars were burned outside a school in Mantes-la-Jolie northwest of the capital on Thursday, while a student was seriously injured by a rubber bullet fired by police in the central city of Orleans.

The main farmers' union said Wednesday that its members would hold demonstrations every day next week.

Two truck driver unions have also called an indefinite sympathy strike from Sunday night, while blockades at fuel depots have caused shortages in Brittany, Normandy, and southeast regions of France.

- 'Brink of insurrection' -

France remains on edge after the "yellow vest" protests degenerated into some of the worst violence in decades in central Paris last Saturday.

Dozens of cars were burned, more than 400 people arrested and the Arc de Triomphe was daubed in graffiti.

Officials fear more violence this weekend after organisers called for new demonstrations, saying Macron's decision to cancel fuel tax increases and other concessions were not enough.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told senators Thursday that "exceptional measures" would be in place on Saturday in addition to the deployment of 65,000 security forces across France.

On Thursday a yellow-vest representative, Benjamin Cauchy, called on Macron to meet a delegation of protesters Friday to help calm a situation that he said had brought the country "to the brink of insurrection and civil war."

"We're asking him to meet us to negotiate on spending power, which is what underpins all this anger," Cauchy told AFP.

Four people have died in accidents linked to the protests since they began on November 17, and hundreds have been injured.

Macron, whose approval ratings are down to just 23 percent, has not commented publicly since Saturday on the deepest crisis of his presidency so far.

Despite last weekend's violence, attributed by many to vandals intent on rioting, public support for the yellow vests has remained stable, with an opinion poll this week showing 72 percent backed the movement.

- Weekend cancellations -

Several museums near the Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe, which was severely damaged during the violence, said they will remain closed Saturday, and some schools in the area have called off Saturday classes.

A Paris Saint-Germain football game against Montpellier scheduled for Saturday has also been postponed after a request by Paris police.

Labour unions are also meeting Thursday to weigh their response to the movement, which has billed itself as a grassroots protest unaligned with any political party or union.

Macron and his government have appealed for calm, and signalled they are ready to make further concessions to avoid new violence after the U-turn on fuel tax increases.

But Macron's office said he told ministers he would stick to his decision to cut a "fortune tax" on high-earners, which the former investment banker abolished last year.

Restoring the wealth tax has become one of the core demands of the "yellow vests," alongside the fuel tax rollback and an increase in the minimum wage.