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French Senate cancels controversial meeting with Yellow Vest protesters

Thomas Samson, AFP | Yellow Vests protest outside the French Senate in Paris on February 9, 2019

Yellow Vest activists called for fresh protests in Paris on Tuesday after the Senate cancelled a meeting with representatives of the movement at the last minute.

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A group of Yellow Vest protesters had been invited by French Senator Catherine Fournier to discuss a range of issues on Tuesday, including plans to privatise Paris’s main airports (Aéroports de Paris or ADP) under a new government bill.

The five-man delegation was made up of several prominent Yellow Vest activists including Eric Drouet, who has made headlines in France for urging followers to storm the Élysée presidential palace.

But the talks were abruptly cancelled, prompting Yellow Vest campaigners to call for fresh protests outside the Senate building in Paris.

“The Senate just cancelled our meeting at the last minute without giving a reason! We call for mass rally outside the Senate at 2:30pm,” a faction of the movement known as Yellow Vest Special Operations posted on Facebook [see below, in French].

Senate President Gérard Larcher told Reuters that the meeting had been called off because it posed a “risk to public order”.

The Yellow Vest delegation was unconvinced, arguing that Drouet was the real reason it was cancelled.

“It would appear that Eric Drouet’s presence was an embarrassment… Yet Eric Drouet is just an angry citizen, he’s a Yellow Vest member and I don’t see why the meeting was cancelled at the last moment,” Philippe de Veulle, another member of the contingent, told French BFM TV.

Drouet said he did not blame the Senate for the meeting's cancellation, suggesting that they were pressured into rescinding their invitation.

“We learned (it was cancelled) 20 minutes before,” Drouet told French LCI television. “I don’t think the decision to cancel came from the Senate, I think it came from higher up.”

Senate meeting with Yellow Vests ‘irresponsible’

French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration has made no secret of its displeasure with the Senate for extending an invitation to Drouet and the other delegation members.

Relations between the executive and legislative branches have been fraught ever since the so-called "Benalla affair" – named after Macron’s former security aide Alexandre Benalla, who was caught on video assaulting May Day protesters – which first erupted in July 2018.

“I don’t find this invitation responsible. It's not my concept of politics,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told France Info radio on Tuesday. “Are they just looking for attention?”

“Why Eric Drouet? I won’t hide my surprise, my shock at learning that the Senate asked Yellow Vest (protester) Eric Drouet for his opinion on the Aéroports de Paris. Is he a specialist on the issue? Is he a member of the Aéroports de Paris? An employee of the Aéroports de Paris?” he added.

Julien Denormandie, minister of urban development, echoed Le Maire, expressing his “deep” shock over the meeting to Cnews media.

In her defence, Fournier told Reuters that she called the meeting at the request of the Yellow Vest Special Operations group.

The group has been outspoken in its opposition to the privatisation of France’s airports.

“The ADP are a strategic national asset that represent a lucrative economic holding, which produces significant wealth,” the movement said in a statement. “It's an indefensible privatisation, without even consulting the public, it is a strategic error that has been decided behind closed doors.”

The Yellow Vest movement – which began in November in response to the government’s decision to introduce annual increases to diesel and carbon taxes – has since become a movement representing broader opposition against Macron’s government, the high cost of living in France and widespread economic uncertainty.

In recent months, however, it has seen its numbers decline as it struggles to transform popular anger into a real political force. Yellow Vest protests on Saturday drew 22,300 people nationwide, making it the movement’s lowest turnout yet, according to the interior ministry.

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