Clashes and low turnout at new French 'yellow vest' protests

Paris (AFP) –


France's "yellow vest" protesters clashed with police in Paris Saturday, while most other demonstrations passed off peacefully, but the movement's hopes for a mass September comeback failed to materialise.

Protesters gathered for two separate marches in Paris, with police firing tear gas into a group that set off from Place du Wagram in the city's northwest after they left their planned route.

The protesters burnt dustbins and set fire to two vehicles.

Police also used tear gas at demonstrations at Lyon and Toulouse, but other marches passed off peacefully.

Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin said some 8,500 people had rallied across the country, 2,500 of them in Paris. He said most demonstrations had passed off peacefully.

This was significantly lower than police had anticipated.

The protest organisers normally dismiss the official figures, but some demonstrators at least felt that the low turn-out spelt the end of the movement.

"This is a kind of last stand," said Michael, a 43-year old protester in the crowd at Place de Wagram.

- 'Nothing's changed' -

At the height of the movement's popularity in late 2018, tens of thousands rallied under the yellow vests' banner, denouncing what they said was President Emmanuel Macron's prioritisation of business and the rich over struggling ordinary families.

The demonstrations sometimes descended into violence and looting that drew harsh police responses, which were in turn criticised in France and beyond.

In Paris Saturday, protesters at a second march starting from Place de la Bourse in the city centre brandished signs with modest demands like "being able to fill your fridge properly".

Elsewhere in France, several hundred yellow vests gathered in southwestern city Toulouse defying a ban the authorities had imposed, citing coronavirus infection risks.

Police there and in the southeast city of Lyon, fired tear gas to disperse them. Yellow vests protesters also gathered in Bordeaux and other cities.

"I didn't back the yellow vests at first but things have only got worse for people in poverty," said a 53-year-old man calling himself Dodo, who attended the Toulouse protest.

"Nothing's changed after two years of struggle."

- TV station briefly stormed -

In central Paris, hundreds of police officers deployed along the Champs-Elysees avenue where authorities had banned demonstrations.

Officers checked the identity cards of passers-by and searched their bags, while many storefronts were boarded in case of a repeat of the looting that has happened during past yellow vest protests.

"We can't have destruction and chaos on the Champs-Elysees," Paris police chief Didier Lallement said on Saturday morning, calling the avenue "a showcase for our country".

But later Saturday, around 30 yellow vest protesters forced their way into the Paris headquarters of rolling news channel BFMTV.

They confronted journalists and denounced the station's coverage of their protests before being evicted by the police.

Ahead of Saturday's protests, police had said they expected up to 5,000 people to rally in Paris, with 1,000 of them potentially violent.

Police arrested 287 people, 275 of them in Paris, and the prosecutors office said 147 people were being held in custody.

Darmanin on Friday announced slightly tighter rules on police use of controversial rubber bullets and other crowd-control weapons.

France was heavily criticised by rights groups at home and abroad after some protesters lost eyes or hands after being hit by rubber bullets or stun grenades during yellow vest protests.