Crowds of yellow-vested protesters have tried to reach the French presidential palace in Paris, some scuffling with police firing tear gas, amid huge security aimed at preventing a repeat of last week’s rioting.
Blue armoured vehicles beneath the Arc de Triomphe and rows of riot police blocked the demonstrators’ passage down the Champs-Elysees avenue towards the heart of presidential power. A ring of steel surrounded the Elysee Palace as police stationed trucks and reinforced steel barriers in streets throughout the entire neighbourhood.
Police also fired water cannons at protesters in one of the capital’s main shopping districts, not far from the flagship buildings of France’s most famed department stores, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, and near the Palais Garnier opera house.
Prized Paris monuments and normally bustling shopping meccas were locked down at the height of the holiday shopping season as protesters condemned President Emmanuel Macron and France’s high taxes.
The Eiffel Tower and Louvre Museum were among tourist attractions that remained closed, fearing damage after rioting and looting last Saturday that saw 130 people injured.
The grassroots movement began as resistance against a rise in taxes for diesel and petrol, but quickly expanded to encompass frustration at stagnant incomes, the growing cost of living and other grievances.
Mr Macron agreed to abandon the fuel tax hike, but that has not defused the anger, embodied by the fluorescent safety vests French motorists are required to keep in their cars.
While scattered scuffles broke out today around central Paris, the action seemed less violent overall at noon than at the same time a week ago, when crowds defaced the Arc de Triomphe, one of the city’s most revered monuments, and rampaged in the surrounding high-end neighbourhood.
After two weekends of violence in Paris that made the authorities look powerless to secure their capital, police went into overdrive on Saturday to keep a lid on unrest.
Officers frisked people and searched bags every hundred metres or so throughout central Paris, and even confiscated gas masks and protective goggles from Associated Press journalists.
Protesters who travelled to Paris from Normandy described seeing officers block yellow-vested passengers from boarding at stops along their route. Police posted a video on Twitter of officers tackling a protester and confiscating his dangerous material, which appeared to be primarily a tennis racket.
Mr Macron’s government had warned that the yellow vest protests had created a “monster” and the Paris actions would be hijacked by “radicalised and rebellious” crowds to become the most dangerous yet after three weeks of demonstrations.
Demonstrators waving French flags and wearing the movement’s signature high-visibility vests gathered before dawn on Saturday near the Arc de Triomphe, then tried to march down the Champs-Elysees towards the presidential palace.
Blocked by police, they tried other routes. Protesters threw flares and other projectiles, and were repeatedly pushed back by tear gas.
Groups in yellow vests also gathered near the Bastille plaza and a few other spots around Paris. The city subway system was shut down in the centre of town.
By noon, more than 500 had been detained in Paris, according to a police spokeswoman. No injuries have been reported. Authorities deployed barricade-busting armoured vehicles and 8,000 police in the capital alone. Nationwide, 89,000 security forces fanned out to deter or confront troublemakers expected at multiple protests.
Many members of the protest movement had called for calm, and some struck a conciliatory tone after meeting the prime minister on Friday night, but that did not deter many people from trying to march on the presidential palace.
Interior minister Christophe Castaner urged calm: “I ask the yellow vests that want to bring about a peaceful message to not go with the violent people. We know that the violent people are only strong because they hide themselves within the yellow vests, which hampers the security forces.”
Mr Macron has been largely invisible in recent days, leaving his prime minister and government to try to negotiate with protesters.
Four people have been killed in accidents since the unrest began on November 17. Christmas markets, national football matches and countless other events have been cancelled or duisrupted by the protests.
Parts of Paris looked like they were bracing for a hurricane, with boards on windows covering up the Christmas decorations. Police removed any materials from the streets that could be used as weapons, especially at construction sites in high-risk areas.
Protesters also blocked roads, roundabouts and tollbooths elsewhere in France. Offshoot movements have emerged elsewhere, and yellow-vest protests were held on Saturday in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Hundreds of yellow-vested protesters calling for the resignation of Belgian prime minister Charles Michel marched on the European quarter of Brussels.
Police used pepper spray and scuffled with a small group of protesters who tried to break through their barricade blocking access to the European Parliament and the European Union’s other main institutions.
In the Dutch city of Rotterdam, a few hundred protesters in the high-visibility vests walked peacefully across the Erasmus Bridge singing and handing flowers to passers-by.