France prepares for new 'Yellow Vest' protests despite reversal on fuel tax
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France will deploy more than 65,000 security forces amid fears of new rioting at protests Saturday in Paris and around the nation, despite President Emmanuel Macron's surrender over a fuel tax hike that unleashed weeks of unrest.
Police unions and local authorities held emergency meetings Thursday to strategize on how to handle the weekend protests, while disparate groups of protesters did the same thing, sharing their plans on social networks and chat groups.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told senators Thursday that the government will deploy "exceptional" security measures for the protests in Paris and elsewhere, with additional new forces on top of the 65,000 security officers already in place.
Some "yellow vest" protesters, members of France's leading unions and prominent politicians across the political spectrum called for calm Thursday after the worst rioting in Paris in decades last weekend. Many shops and restaurants in the center of Paris plan to shut down Saturday, fearing a repeat of the violence.
Macron on Wednesday agreed to abandon the fuel tax hike, part of his plans to combat global warming, but protesters' demands have now expanded to other issues hurting French workers, retirees and students.
In a move questioned by both critics and supporters, the president himself has disappeared from public view.
Scores of protesting teens clashed with police at a high school west of Paris on Thursday, according to French news reports, as part of nationwide student protests over new university admissions procedures and rising administrative fees. Drivers wearing their signature yellow safety vests continued to block roads around France, now demanding broader tax cuts and wider government social benefits.
A small union representing police administrators called for a strike Saturday, which could further complicate security measures. Two police union officials told The Associated Press they are worried that radical troublemakers from both the far-right and far-left will hijack the protests to cause even greater damage this Saturday.
The risks are multiple in the face of a movement with no clear leaders.
French police have come under criticism for failing to prevent damage to the Arc de Triomphe and stores along the famed Champs-Elysees in central Paris last weekend - as well as for violence against protesters.
Videos on social media of police beating protesters at a Burger King near the Champs-Elysees have stoked the anger. A police spokeswoman said Thursday that an investigation is underway into that incident and police are examining other videos online for possible violations.
Macron, the central target of the protests, has been largely invisible all week. After winning election overwhelmingly last year, the 40-year-old pro-business centrist has sought to make France more competitive globally. But his efforts have alienated many of his own voters with tax cuts for the rich to spur investment and other badly explained reforms - and what many see as his elitist, out-of-touch attitude.
Macron doesn't face re-election until 2022 and his party has a strong majority in parliament, but his political opponents are increasingly vocal and plan a no-confidence vote in the government next week.
The prime minister on Thursday reiterated the government's plan to scrap a fuel tax rise planned by the previous government because of the "extreme tensions that our country is going through."
"No tax deserves to put civil peace in danger," Philippe said.
The rioting in Paris has worried tourists, prompted the cancellation of four French league soccer matches this weekend around the country and damaged the local economy at the height of the holiday shopping season. Rampaging groups threw cobblestones through storefronts and looted valuables in some of the city's richest neighborhoods.
Clement Rozey, manager of a motorcycle shop in western Paris, spent two days and nights cleaning up after he watched helplessly as a group of thugs smashed his shop windows and emptied his shelves. He has boarded up the store and will stay closed Saturday.
"We're going to have a security company with security guards inside and outside the shop," Rozey told the AP. "Everything has been fenced off, several times."
Yet he remains sympathetic to the protest movement.
"Just like everybody, we're strangled (financially) after the 15th of the month," he said, referring to the day when many French workers are paid. The protesters "are defending a cause, they're following through and rightly so. We support them whole-heartedly."
But violent troublemakers who pillage and riot?
"That's something else," Rozey said.