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Sporadic clashes as Yellow Vests march to Montmartre for 'Act 19' of protests

Geoffroy van der Hasselt, AFP | Yellow Vest protesters gather in front of the Sacré Coeur Basilica in Montmartre on March 23.

Yellow Vest protesters clashed sporadically with French police firing tear gas on Saturday during a mostly peaceful march through Paris to the Sacré Coeur basilica in Montmartre.

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Scattered Yellow Vest protesters clashed with French police firing tear gas Saturday after a peaceful march through Paris, but tougher security measures and protest bans in high-risk neighbourhoods prevented the kind of rioting that devastated the capital a week ago.

"Protesters were clever in that they ensured it was more peaceful this week after what the government said, in terms of police and army deployment," Alexis Poulin, co-founder of Le Monde Moderne (The Modern World) website, told FRANCE 24.

"Furthermore, the anarchists (who were at the heart of the violence last week) stayed away."

The Yellow Vests saw a drop in overall support after restaurants, shops and banks were attacked and set alight last weekend by some extreme elements within the movement.

>> Yellow Vests: ‘We lock ourselves inside,’ says Champs-Élysées concierge

Peaceful march

Thousands of demonstrators marched peacefully through Paris – their 19th straight weekend of protests – ending up at the Sacré-Coeur Cathedral overlooking the city from the historic Montmartre neighbourhood.

Haxie Meyers-Belkin reports from Montmartre

Protesters set off yellow flares and unfurled a neon banner from atop the cathedral's white dome. In a relaxed mood, demonstrators and tourists alike took selfies as the march wound down.

Later, however, tensions erupted as small clusters of masked protesters set garbage cans on fire and threw projectiles as they moved toward République Plaza in eastern Paris. Helmeted riot police fired volleys of tear gas in response.

'Macron favours elite'

The Yellow Vest protesters want more help for struggling French workers and retirees and say President Emmanuel Macron favours the elite.

A police officer on the plaza suffered a heart problem, slumping to the ground before being hospitalised in what Paris police described as a "very serious" condition. Associated Press journalists at the scene saw no violence or incidents nearby when he collapsed.

At least 2,000 people have been injured in protest violence since the Yellow Vest movement began in November, and 11 people have been killed in protest-related road accidents.

Elsewhere in France on Saturday, small groups of demonstrators and police clashed in the southern French cities of Nice and Montpellier. Nice was placed under high security measures as Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to stay overnight on Sunday as part of his state visit to France.

Overall though, Saturday's protests were calmer than a week ago, when resurgent violence reminded France's government that they've failed to quell Yellow Vest anger. Luxury shops were looted and ransacked around Champs-Élysées Avenue in Paris and some were set on fire by protesters.

This week, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner estimated that 40,500 people took part in protests around France, up from 32,300 a week ago. This week's protests were more spread out, with just 5,000 estimated in Paris compared to 10,000 last Saturday.

233 arrests

Some 233 people were arrested, including people trying to come to Paris to protest with baseball bats, slingshots and other potential weapons, Castaner said.

French authorities banned protests from Champs-Élysées Avenue in Paris and the central neighbourhoods of several other cities including Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille and Nice in the south, and Rouen in western France.

The Champs-Élysées was almost empty on Saturday except for a huge police presence. Fear of more violence kept tourists away, and police shut down the subway stations surrounding the famed avenue as a precaution.

The new Paris police chief, Didier Lallement, who took charge this week following the destruction wrought by last week's protests, said specific police units were created to react faster to any violence.

Soldiers deployed to sensitive sites

About 6,000 police officers were deployed in the capital Saturday and two drones helped monitor the demonstrations. French authorities also deployed soldiers to protect sensitive sites, allowing police to focus on maintaining order.

>> Yellow Vest protests: Macron's 'risky' plan to put army on streets

That decision prompted criticism from opposition leaders and some protesters.

"Since when do soldiers face a population? We are here in France. You would say that we are here in [North] Korea or in China. I never saw something like this," said Christelle Camus, a protester from a southern suburb of Paris.

Polls suggest last week's violence dampened public support for the Yellow Vests, but that a majority of French people still agree with the protesters' anger over the French tax system and Macron's leadership.

Saturday's marchers held signs demanding more say for citizens in public policy.

"We come to protest in a calm manner. We have the right to express ourselves, to say that we want to live [decently]," said Céline Dutry, who came to Paris to protest from the northern city of Amiens, Macron's hometown. "We are not jealous of the rich."

The protests started in November to oppose fuel tax hikes but have expanded into a broader rejection of Macron's economic policies, which protesters say favour businesses and the wealthy over ordinary French workers. Macron countered by dropping the fuel tax hike and holding months of discussions with the public on France's stagnant wages, high taxes and high unemployment.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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