Putin, Macron spar over 'yellow vest' protests

Bormes-les-Mimosas (France) (AFP) –


Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday vowed to prevent the emergence of any mass demonstrations in Moscow like the "yellow vest" anti-government protests that erupted in France late last year.

"We would not want such a thing to happen in the Russian capital," Putin said after talks with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron at the Bregancon fortress on France's Mediterranean coast.

"We will do everything to make sure the situation remains within the realms of the law," he added.

Since mid-July, Moscow has seen a wave of rallies drawing tens of thousands onto the streets after opposition figures were barred from standing in September's local elections.

But the protests have since morphed into an expression of wider anger over declining living standards and a stalling economy.

Russian police cracked down on the weekly demonstrations, arresting some 3,000 people including prominent members of the opposition, including top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

The crackdown has drawn notably sharp criticism from France, despite its own struggles with the yellow vest movement which has seen the authorities come under fire for their heavy-handed response.

Plans to increase diesel prices and raise taxes on pensions initially sparked the protests in France in November but they soon ballooned into a full-scale anti-government rebellion.

- 'Free to demonstrate and vote' -

Although it has since dwindled, the movement is still active.

"We know that such situations don't just happen in Russia. I am a guest here and it's uncomfortable for me to talk about this," said Putin when pressed by reporters.

But he then reeled off a list of casualty tolls and said that according to "our count", 11 people were killed in the French protests and 2,500 injured.

Several people lost their lives in traffic accidents linked to the protests. Putin did not give a source for the figures.

But Macron was quick to respond, noting Putin's "concern" over the violence and insisting it was important to notice the difference between the two countries.

The French president said it was important in a democracy to respect principles such as "freedom of expression and opinion" and "the freedom to demonstrate and participate" freely in elections.

"That was why France spoke out this summer.. about the situation in Moscow," he said.

"In France, those who demonstrate are able freely take part in elections. The yellow vests were free to participate in the European elections and will go to the local elections," he said, expressing hope they would freely express themselves "in order to reduce conflict".

"We are a country in which people can express themselves freely, demonstrate freely, express their views freely but what we cannot accept is them causing damage and disturbing the public order."

In Russia, local polls are seen as a rare opportunity for dissenting voices to participate in political life as anti-Kremlin parties have been squeezed out of parliament over Putin's two decades in power.