By Raphael Satter And Elena Becatoros, The Associated Press
PARIS — Tear gas billowed Saturday across the protest-scarred Champs-Elysees after a day of largely peaceful demonstrations in Paris and a water cannon shot a frigid stream at the crowd on the fifth straight weekend of protests by France’s “yellow vest” movement.
The demonstrations against France’s high cost of living — sapped by cold weather, rain and recent concessions by French President Emmanuel Macron — were significantly smaller Saturday than at previous rallies, some of which scarred parts of Paris with vandalism and looting.
A few thousand people marched up and down the famed shopping street in Paris, a spirited yet peaceful gathering that sunk into violence as the afternoon wore on. Riot police clashed with demonstrators as the occasional tourist darted from their hotel or a brave Christmas shopper took a peek at the neighbourhood’s mostly boarded-up storefronts.
By late afternoon, a water cannon in a line of police vans confronting protesters sprayed water to disperse them. Firefighters put out a fire on a side street leading to the Champs-Elysees and limited scuffles broke out between protesters and police. By early evening, police had cleared the avenue and re-opened it to traffic.
Protesters made clear they wanted to keep up the pressure, even if their numbers were far smaller than in previous weeks, which saw rioters smashing and looting stores and setting up burning barricades in the streets.
Pierre Lamy, a 27-year-old industrial worker wearing both a yellow vest and a French flag over his shoulders, said the movement had long stopped being just about a fuel tax hike that sparked the protests in November but was now focused on economic justice.
“We’re here to represent all our friends and members of our family who can’t come to protest, or because they’re scared,” he said, walking to the demonstration with three friends. “Everything’s coming up now. We’re being bled dry.”
French law enforcement was out in force. About 8,000 police and 14 armoured vehicles were deployed in Paris for the demonstration, and streets of central Paris were honeycombed with checkpoints where officers in riot gear checked bags and coats for weapons.
Police said 115 people were taken into custody in Paris, most for banding together to commit acts of violence, and a small number were injured. Police in riot gear tackled one protester and dragged him off the Champs-Elysees, while his friends said he was doing nothing but exercising right to protest.
The yellow vest movement, which takes its name from the fluorescent safety vests French motorists must have in their vehicles, has been fueled by a sense that Macron’s government is hurting ordinary workers and retirees with too many taxes. Without any clear leadership, it has attracted a wide range of disgruntled people across France’s political spectrum, including some violent militants.
“Respect my existence or expect my resistance,” read one banner held aloft by protesters.
Max Werle, a 56-year-old father of nine, said the protests were his first-ever demonstrations.
“I’m here for my children,” he said, adding that his daughter had given birth in a firetruck Monday because the local hospital in Loiret outside Paris had closed years ago. “(We are) here to defend our cause … it’s not a left and right thing.”
Yellow vest protests were also being held Saturday in other parts of France, blocking roads and highways. The number of deaths linked to the protest rose to seven after Belgian police said a man accidently crashed his car Friday night into a truck that had stalled at a yellow vest roadblock on the French-Belgian border.
Macron had called for calm before the demonstrations, a call echoed by his government.
“Protesting is a right. So let’s know how to exercise it,” the French government tweeted, showing a 34-second video that began with images of historic French protests and recent footage of “yellow vest” protesters rallying peacefully before turning to violence.
“Protesting is not smashing. Protesting is not smashing our heritage. Protesting is not smashing our businesses. … Protesting is not smashing our republic,” the video says.
Macron acknowledged earlier this week that he was partially responsible for the anger displayed during the protests, and announced measures aimed at improving workers’ spending power. He refused, however, to reinstate a wealth tax that aimed to spur investment in France.
But on the streets of Paris, some protesters still said the president didn’t understand them.
“I think that Macron isn’t in touch with what the yellow vests want. I think the yellow vests need to continue speaking out,” said Julie Verrier, a protester from Picardie in Normandy in northern France who came to Paris on Saturday.
“Local city halls are closed, so we can’t go there to express and write our complaints,” she said. “So coming here is the only way we have to say that French people need to be heard.”
Chris Den Hond and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.