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French police to block 'yellow vest' protesters

March 22, 2019

After the most violent scenes of the 'gilets jaunes' protests last weekend, police are closing off some key areas this weekend. Redeployment of soldiers to free up police for public order roles has also caused concern.

Paris Gelbwesten Protest Ausschreitungen Plünderungen
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Ena

The Paris prefect's office said that protesters will be prevented from marching on to the Champs-Elysees from the streets surrounding the Arc de Triomphe, at the top of the avenue and several nearby areas including the president's Elysee Palace and the National Assembly.

"There are serious reasons to believe that violence and damage are likely during the scheduled demonstrations," the prefect's office said in a statement on Friday.

Last weekend, fires were set on the Champs-Elysees damaging newspaper kiosks, shops and the famous Fouquet restaurant, which will be closed for repairs for several weeks. 

There will be similar bans in other major cities such as Marseille, Toulouse and Nice, where President Emmanuel Macron is due to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sunday.

If there are rallies on Saturday, it would be the 19th weekend in a row they have taken place. Anyone defying the bans would face fines. Speaking on Thursday, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner demanded a "zero tolerance" police approach towards violent protesters.

A yellow vest protester in front of a burned-out newspaper kiosk
A yellow vest protester in front of a burned-out newspaper kioskImage: AFP/Getty Images/Z. Abdelkafi

The right to demonstrate

Protests in other parts of Paris will be allowed to go ahead on Saturday: "The right to demonstrate, which is a fundamental freedom, will be allowed" but "any riotous groups will be immediately dispersed," police declared.

What began as a mass protest against an increase in fuel taxes — hence the use of the 'yellow vests' which must by law be carried in any car for emergencies in France — has decreased in terms of numbers of participants but intensified in terms of acts of violence and damage.

The Paris police chief lost his job this week after police appeared to hold back as hundreds of violent protesters burned and looted more than a hundred shops and businesses. These so-called "black blocs," according to Castaner "belong in prison, not on the Champs-Elysees."

There were reports that Hugo Boss had been smashed so Paris St Germain soccer shirts could be grabbed.
There were reports that Hugo Boss had been smashed so Paris St Germain soccer shirts could be grabbed.Image: Getty Images/AFP/Z. Abdelkafi

Soldiers redeployed

Soldiers are being redeployed from the "Sentinelle" anti-terror operation during this weekend's protests to secure government buildings and other sites. This will free up police to: "concentrate on crowd control, along with maintaining law and order," government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said. Police have been working continuously since the protests began on November 17.

However, the soldiers will not be involved in public order operations, Defense Minister Florence Parly said it was "obviously out of the question" that the soldiers would come face-to-face with demonstrators she told Le Parisien.

Paris military governor General Bruno Le Ray confirmed via public broadcaster FranceInfo that troops were authorized to open fire if their lives were at risk.

jm/msh (AFP, Reuters)

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