'Yellow Vest' leader detained overnight by French police
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One of the leaders of the "Yellow Vest" demonstrations in France was arrested on Wednesday by police in Paris, before being released on Thursday.
This signals a harder line from the government and it sparked a wave of criticism from opponents.
Eric Drouet – who already faces a trial for carrying a weapon at a previous protest – was arrested late Wednesday for organising an unauthorised protest on the Champs-Elysées avenue. He was released Thursday afternoon.
Speaking to reporters after his release, Drouet said he had been on his way to a restaurant with four others when he was picked up by dozens of armed riot police and forced into a vehicle.
"I wasn't wearing a yellow vest, just walking on the pavement," he said, calling the arrest "incomprehensible".
"I'm not the Yellow Vests' representative. With or without me, it will continue", he said, speaking of the protests.
Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire defended the arrest, saying: "It's called respecting the rule of law."
"It's normal that when you break the laws of the republic, you face the consequences," he added.
Under French law, protest organisers are required to inform authorities of the location at least three days in advance, but the Yellow Vests have routinely flouted this since their often spontaneous demonstrations began in late November.
'Abuse of power'
Far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen accused the government of "systematic violation of the political rights of opponents", while one of her party's top officials, Wallerand de Saint-Just, said Drouet had become "a hero, a martyr".
On the other end of the political spectrum, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the hard-left France insoumise (France unbowed) party, also lashed out at Drouet's detention.
"Again Eric Drouet arrested, why? Abuse of power. A politicised police targeting and harassing the leaders of the Yellow Vest movement," Mélenchon tweeted.
Drouet, a 33-year-old truck driver who became known through his Facebook videos, often appears on television as an "apolitical" spokesman for the Yellow Vest movement.
He has been criticised for peddling conspiracy theories online and accused of voting for Le Pen in elections last year, which he has denied.
Drouet was arrested last month for carrying a wooden stick at a demonstration, and he faces trial on June 5 for "carrying a prohibited category D weapon", a judicial source told AFP.
The Yellow Vest demonstrations – named after the high-visibility jackets worn by protesters – began in rural France in November over fuel taxes, but ballooned into a wider revolt against President Emmanuel Macron's policies and governing style.
Drouet took the lead in calling for protesters to hold the first rally on the Champs-Elysées on December 1, a demonstration which turned violent, with "yellow vests" clashing with police amid flaming barricades.
In mid-December, after weeks of violence, Macron scrapped planned fuel tax rises in response to the protests and promised extra cash for minimum wage earners and tax cuts for pensioners.
Since then, the movement has waned and support among the general public has fallen.
Only a couple of hundred of "yellow vests" turned up for the last round of demonstrations on the Champs-Elysées on New Year's Eve. They were swamped by tens of thousands of revellers ringing in the new year.
But "yellow vests" have promised to return in force to the streets this Saturday.
Opinion polls suggest the French are evenly divided over whether the protest movement should continue.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)