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France's Yellow Vest protesters hit the streets again

Benoit Tessier, Reuters | Protesters wearing yellow vests take part in a demonstration by the Yellow Vest movement in Paris, France, January 26, 2019.

Thousands of Yellow Vest protesters returned to the streets of France Saturday to protest against President Emmanuel Macron's policies, despite disagreement in their ranks on how to move the movement forward.

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Police fired tear gas and water cannon to push back protesters at Place de la Bastille in Paris, one of the regular protest sites, as some demonstrators threw stones from a building site.

The local prefecture reported 223 arrests in Paris.

Interior ministry estimated at 2pm (1300 GMT) numbers for the 11th week of protests were at 22,000 across France, compared to 27,000 at the same time last Saturday.

In Paris, the official count was 2,500 demonstrators against 7,000 the previous weekend.

There were clashes too in the southern city of Montpellier, where a police officer was injured by "a pyrotechnic device" said a statement from the local prefecture.

'We are forgotten'

Participants at the Champs-Elysees march called Macron's national debate a "smoke screen" to distract the French from his pro-business policies. They expressed views veering from the far left to a middle-ground, middle-class malaise. Many want Macron to restore France's wealth tax and allow the public to propose national referendums on anything from pulling France out of the euro to rewriting the constitution.

"We are forgotten," said protester Mervyn Ramsamy, a hospital employee from north of Paris lamenting recent closures of maternity wards and other medical services in already struggling areas. "We won't give up."

It's unclear how long the movement can maintain its momentum. Macron scrapped the fuel tax hike that initially sparked the protests and offered widespread tax relief when the protest violence hit a peak in December.

A 52-year-old home care worker who identified herself only as Nicole says the measures aren't enough, so she's still protesting. "I have a salary of 1,200 euros. I don't run out of money by the 15th of the month, I run out of money by the 6th of the month. I can no longer manage to survive. That's why I'm here, because nothing is moving, nothing is changing," she said on the Champs-Elysees.

One branch of the movement launched a bid this week for the European Parliament elections in May, but other protest leaders disagree with the idea.

In another challenge for the yellow vest movement, rival groups calling themselves the "red scarves" plan demonstrations Sunday to condemn violence unleashed by recent protests.

Police armed with guns firing non-lethal rubber balls - which have seriously injured several - are equipped with body cameras Saturday for the first time, in an experiment to record use of the weapons, providing context and eventual evidence if needed.

In between the Saturday protests, yellow-vested crowds occupy scattered roundabouts and tollbooths around France, disrupting traffic to express a sense of neglect by the central government. The movement began Nov. 17, named after the fluorescent garments French motorists must carry in case of emergency.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

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