Thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched in cities across France on Saturday in a new round of “yellow vest” protests against President Emmanuel Macron‘s economic policies.
Protesters walked through central Paris from the Finance Ministry in the east to the Arc de Triomphe in the west on Saturday.
Some scuffles broke out between the police and protesters near the monument, while security forces fired tear gas at protesters throwing rocks and other objects at them.
Paris police said 40 people were arrested on Saturday before and during the protests, mostly for carrying potential weapons.
Officials have vowed zero tolerance for the violence that has marred the weekly protests since they began two months ago, deploying some 80,000 security forces nationwide.
In Paris, the epicentre of the fiery street clashes and vandalism that have made global headlines, 5,000 riot police were on hand, using tall barricades and armoured vehicles to lock down the central Place de la Concorde and surrounding districts.
Hundreds of officers were also on guard on the Champs-Elysees, where banks, jewellery stores and other shops had boarded up windows in anticipation of renewed looting and violence.
|Protesters took to the streets in France for the ninth weekend in a row [Ludovic Marin/AFP]
Yet many cafes and retailers on the iconic avenue remained open for business, as several thousands of protesters marched calmly from the Place de la Bastille towards the Arc de Triomphe early in the afternoon.
Many sang the Marseillaise, the national anthem, while others held signs saying, “Insecurity is not a job!”
At times the crowd yelled “Free Christophe!” in reference to Christophe Dettinger, the former professional boxer arrested last week after being filmed bashing two police officers during the Paris demos.
“We’ve come to Paris to make ourselves heard, and we wanted to see for ourselves at least once what’s going on here,” said Patrick, 37, who told AFP he had travelled from the Savoie region of western France.
Reporting from Paris, Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler said that the biggest challenge facing the security forces was the unpredictability of the protests, which have ranged in size over recent weeks.
“Just how many people will turn out today is completely unpredictable and that’s really been the key to these protests over the past nine Saturdays,” she said. “It’s also the main challenge for the security forces as they try to manage and control them.”
“Of course, the majority of demonstrators want to walk through these streets peacefully. They want to get their message across to the government, that they are not happy about a range of things, including the high cost of living. What the police want to avoid, and most of the protesters, of course, are some of the scenes of violence that we’ve seen over the past couple of months.”
In the well-heeled horseracing town of Chantilly just north of Paris, 1,000 or so protesters marched through the centre before descending on the hippodrome where they delayed the start of a race, local media said.
And another 1,200 protesters gathered in the central city of Bourges, where some yellow-vest organisers were hoping to rally those from areas far from the capital.
Signs said “Macron resign!” and “France is angry,” while local prosecutor Joel Garrigue said five people had been detained after police discovered a cache of ball bearings during a search of their car.
The protests also spilled over the border into eastern Belgium late on Friday, where one of around 25 protesters manning a blockade died after being hit by a truck, Belgian media reported.
Officials had warned of bigger and more violent protests than last week, when demonstrators rammed a forklift truck through the main doors of a government ministry in Paris.
“Those who are calling to demonstrate tomorrow know there will be violence, and therefore they are in part responsible,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said in a Facebook interview Friday with Brut, a digital news site favoured by many yellow vests.
But many yellow vests pointed to images of a police officer repeatedly striking an unarmed man on the ground during a protest last week in Toulon, accusing the police of excessive use of force.
The movement, which began as protests over high fuel taxes, has snowballed into a wholesale rejection of Macron and his policies, which are seen favouring the wealthy at the expense of rural and small-town France.
Macron has called for a national debate starting next week to hear voters’ grievances, hoping to sate demands for more of a say in national law-making and tamp down the protesters’ anger.
He has already unveiled a 10 billion euro ($11.5bn) financial relief package for low earners, and axed the planned fuel tax increase.