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Yellow Vests defy Macron 'national debate' bid with 10th Saturday of protests

Loic Venance, AFP | A Gilet Jaune protester marches in Nantes on January 12, 2019.

Around 84,000 "Yellow Vest" demonstrators marched all around France on Saturday, marking a 10th straight weekend of anti-government protests, defying attempts by President Emmanuel Macron to channel their anger into a series of town hall debates.

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In Paris, Protesters assembled by the Invalides plaza near the National Assembly and marched through the city's Left Bank in freezing temperatures. These demonstrations were largely peaceful but, according to reporters, clashes broke out late in the afternoon between police and demonstrators, some wearing masks, in Paris' central Invalides district.

Protesters threw firecrackers, bottles and stones at the police who responded with water cannon and tear gas to push them back.

Authorities said there were around 7,000 protesters in Paris, some of whom gathered near the world-famous Champs Elysees, while there were similar demonstrations in major cities across France. Rallies took place in Toulouse, Lyon, Rouen and other cities.

According to the French Interior Ministry, some 84,000 people marched across France on Saturday, as many as last week. In the French capital though, there were fewer protestors on this 10th consecutive weekend than on the previous Saturday, when there were 8,000.

Reporters: What do France's 'Yellow Vest' protesters want?

Beforehand, the authorities were expecting the protests to be “at least as big as last week”, a police source said, when over 80,000 people demonstrated nationwide against inequality, the privileges enjoyed by senior public servants and the governing style of a president accused of arrogance.

Last week’s turnout confirmed that, after a lull at the end of the year, the protesters behind the biggest crisis in Macron’s presidency remain fully mobilised.

The centrist leader is hoping that the launch this week of a “grand national debate” on policy will mark a turning point.

One of the yellow vests’ top demands is that ordinary citizens be given a greater say in policy-making.

Macron this week kickstarted two months of public consultations on issues ranging from taxation to public services, spending over 12 hours in total debating with mayors at two separate gatherings in the north and south-west of the country.

'This debate does not represent the people at all!'

The debates mark a return to form for the 41-year-old president who won election at the head of a grassroots movement that went door-to-door asking the French what kind of changes were needed.

A prodigious debater he appeared this week to relish the return to campaign-style politics.

But many yellow vests have announced plans to boycott the discussions scheduled in dozens of towns and villages, seeing them as an attempt to drain support from a movement that erupted in mid-November over fuel taxes and quickly broadened into a campaign of weekly protests that have regularly ended in clashes with police and destruction of property.

The growing number of demonstrators to suffer serious injuries at the hands of the police has compounded their anger towards the state.

The “Disarm” collective, a local group that campaigns against police violence, has counted 98 cases of serious injuries, including 15 cases of people losing an eye, mostly after being hit by rubber bullets.

On Saturday, protesters marched from the Invalides war museumin the heart of the city all the way along the River Seine to Place d’Italie in the southeast, and back to the starting point.

Some 80,000 security force members are on duty again nationwide, 5,000 of them in Paris.

Warning against debate ‘bluff’

Macron is pinning his hopes on the debate to quash the image of a leader out-of-touch with the concerns of people in rural France.

Polls show mixed feelings among the French, with around 40 percent saying they would like to take part but around two-thirds saying they do not believe the consultations will end the protests.

“I’m warning you, Mr President. This debate must not become a big bluff,” the mayor of the south-central village of Saint-Cirgues, Christian Venries, warned Macron at a public meeting Friday in his region.

To fend off accusations that his policies favour rich urbanites the most, former investment banker Macron has already scrapped a controversial fuel tax hike that would have squeezed car-dependent rural-dwellers.

He has also unveiled a €10 billion ($11.5-billion) package of wage increases and tax relief for low earners and retirees that threw off France’s deficit targets.

The measures fell short of the mark for the protesters, who are demanding a radical policy shift in favour of low earners, buoyed by polls that show widespread sympathy for their cause.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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