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Tension in Paris as Yellow Vests protest on first Saturday since Notre-Dame fire

Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP | Protesters march past the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral during an anti-government demonstration called by the Yellow Vests movement in Paris, on March 23, 2019.

Officials warn that violence could flare up on the 23rd Saturday of Yellow Vest marches, the first since the Notre-Dame fire, with protesters angry that nearly €1 billion was pledged to restore the cathedral while their demands remain unsatisfied.

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After weeks of relative calm, with the marches attracting declining numbers, Interior minister Christophe Castaner said during a press conference on Friday domestic intelligence services had informed him of a potential return of rioters intent on wreaking havoc in Paris, Toulouse, Montpellier and Bordeaux, in a repeat of violent protests on March 16.

That day, during the violent protests against inequality that have been shaking up France for months, hooded gangs ransacked stores on Paris's famed Champs-Élysées avenue, set fire to a bank and forced Macron to cut short a ski trip in the Pyrénées.

"The rioters will be back tomorrow," Castaner told a press conference. "Their proclaimed aim: A repeat of March 16," he said. "The rioters have visibly not been moved by what happened at Notre-Dame."

For many Yellow Vest protesters, the stinging sadness that came with the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral has quickly given way to boiling anger.

Some of the activists said they cried in front of their TV sets as they watched the Gothic architectural masterpiece being consumed by flames Monday night and some even made small donations for the restoration of the iconic building, despite their struggles to make ends meet.

Outrage as €1bn pledged for Notre-Dame

But they felt outraged when, in just a few hours, billionaires pledged around one billion euros to help restore the damaged cathedral while their demands remain unsatisfied in their longstanding fight with the French government.

"You're there, looking at all these millions accumulating, after spending five months in the streets fighting social and fiscal injustice. It's breaking my heart," Ingrid Levavasseur, a founding leader of the movement, told the Associated Press ahead of another round of planned protests across France this weekend.

Castaner said 60,000 police officers will be mobilised on Saturday across France, and planned marches that would have come near the medieval church on the central island on the Seine River had been banned, while one march from Saint-Denis, north of Paris, to Jussieu University on the Left Bank, had been authorised.

"What happened at Notre-Dame is obviously a deplorable tragedy. But nobody died," Levavasseur said. "I've heard someone speaking of national mourning. Are they out of their minds?"

Macron ‘made us wait for three weeks’

But they also felt unheard when French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the nation to speak about the fire, instead of laying out his response to the social crisis that has fuelled their protests since last November.

The French leader was due to unveil policies to quell the movement on Monday, before the blaze at Notre-Dame forced him to cancel the speech. Macron is set to speak on the announcements on Thursday, the French presidency said.

Levavasseur believes the image of unbroken national unity that arose in the aftermath of the fire is being politically exploited by Macron.

"It took him less than 24 hours to speak about the fire, while he made us wait for three weeks before addressing our issues," she said.

Decrying the struggles of low-paid workers and pensioners and accusing Macron's government of favouring the rich, Yellow Vest activists have been protesting for 22 consecutive weekends.

Frustrated by the lack of government response, Levavasseur has stopped attending demonstrations in recent weeks but is considering returning to the streets on Saturday because of an even greater sense of being overlooked since the Notre-Dame tragedy. And she's not the only one feeling this way.

‘Nothing for the needy’

"The Yellow Vests will show their anger against the billion found in four days for stones, and nothing for the needy," wrote Pierre Derrien on the Facebook page of a Yellow Vests group based in the southern city of Montpellier.

France's richest businessman, Bernard Arnault, and his luxury goods LVMH group pledged €200 million for the reconstruction. Billionaire François Pinault and his son, François-Henri Pinault, said they were giving €100 million from Artémis, the holding company that owns the Christie's auction house and the main shareholder of luxury fashion houses, including Gucci.

"If they can give dozens of millions to rebuild Notre-Dame, they should stop telling us there is no money to respond to the social emergency," said CGT trade union leader Philippe Martinez.

Money better spent elsewhere, protesters say

Many French citizens believe the near billion euros pledged for the cathedral's restoration could be better spent elsewhere. Some have also criticised the billionaires' donations because their pledges make them eligible for huge tax deductions.

The Pinault family has said, however, they will not ask for a tax deduction for their donation to Notre-Dame, and Arnault said his family holding company was not eligible for tax breaks because it has already reached the limit for deductions.

In fact, taxes have been one of the most pressing issues of the Yellow Vest movement, which has lashed out at Macron for favouring the rich by eliminating a wealth tax as part of his economic stimulus plan, while average French workers have seen their living standards decline.

Anti-rich messages have flourished on social media in recent days as Yellow Vest protesters coordinated their action for the weekend.

"Victor Hugo thanks all the generous donors ready to save Notre-Dame and proposes that they do the same thing with Les Misérables," they wrote on their social media pages, quoting French writer Ollivier Pourriol and his droll reference to Hugo's famous novels about the cathedral and the lives of the poor.

Tristan, a Yellow Vest supporter who declined to give his full name for fear of being identified by police after he was banned from travelling to Paris during weekends to attend demonstrations, prefers to stay away from the polemics.

He made an €80 donation to Notre-Dame – quite a sum for the 29-year-old, who works in construction and does frequent night shifts to put butter on his bread.

"I'm a Catholic, I'm a regular churchgoer and I felt personally touched," he said. "Tears came to my eyes on Monday night. Of course, one can ask why billionaires did not give money before to less important organisations. But who knows if they didn't?

"On the other hand, what really shocked me is Macron saying Notre-Dame would be rebuilt within five years. It's obvious he never held a trowel in his life."

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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