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AFP
March 24, 2019

Soldiers to open fire if necessary on Yellow Vest protests

National

AFP
March 24, 2019

PARIS: French soldiers will operate under strict instructions, but will be allowed to fire live ammunition if necessary in the planned "Yellow Vest" protests on Saturday, the military governor of Paris says.

Thousands of police fanned out across Paris and other French cities for the 19th consecutive week of "yellow vest" protests, as the government faced intense pressure to avoid a repeat of the rioting and looting that marred last week’s rally in the capital.

Hundreds of demonstrators began marching shortly after midday from a square in the south of Paris across the city towards Montmartre in the north, with banners calling for President Emmanuel Macron to "Get Lost!"

Authorities banned demonstrations in a large area in the west of the city, including the Champs-Elysees, the scene of last Saturday’s rampage by hundreds of black-clad agitators.

Dozens of police vehicles, including armoured trucks and water cannons, encircled the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the iconic avenue, with officers searching people’s bags and patrolling in front of boarded-up storefronts.

"It would have been asking for trouble to go to the Champs, after the repression they’ve announced," said Jean-Paul Tonson, a 57-year-old civil servant.

"But we’re going to keep showing up, we’re not going to back down," he said.

The interior ministry said 8,300 people had turned out for protests across France as of 2:00 pm (1300 GMT), including 3,100 in Paris.

It was a marked declined from the 14,500 counted by mid-afternoon last Saturday, with 10,000 in Paris.

Over 50 people had been detained in the capital, while 29 were given fines -- which the government hiked by decree this week to 135 euros ($153) from 38 euros -- for protesting in the outlawed sectors, the police said.

Protest bans were also in effect in the centres of Toulouse, Bordeaux, Dijon, Rennes and the southern city of Nice, where Chinese President Xi Jinping is to meet his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron this weekend.

Dozens of people who defied the ban at Nice’s Garibaldi square near the port were quickly surrounded by security forces and later evacuated, with six people arrested.

Clashes also broke out in some other cities, including Nantes and Montpellier, though the Paris march was largely peaceful.

Macron is under pressure to avoid a repeat of last week’s sacking of the Champs-Elysees, where over 100 shops were damaged, looted or set alight during seven hours of rioting by mainly masked, black-clad protesters.

The government has redeployed soldiers from its Sentinelle anti-terror force to guard public buildings, freeing up the 6,000 deployed police in Paris to tackle any flare-ups of violence.

There was no sign of the soldiers in much of central Paris on Saturday, but the move drew fierce criticism nonetheless from opposition parties, who have accused the government of playing with fire.

On social media, several "yellow vest" leaders urged caution, warning demonstrators against appearing to countenance the violence by far-left or far-right infiltrators.

Macron’s government drew fierce criticism over its handling of last week’s protests, when police appeared to hang back during the wave of rioting and vandalism that swept the Champs-Elysees.

Analysts say the authorities may have been reluctant to engage the rioters after the dozens of injuries sustained by participants in previous protests.

But this week officials vowed "zero tolerance" for more violence.

"He needs to show the world that the government has a handle on the country and on the capital," said Sylvian, the leader of a team of repair workers still clearing away debris on the avenue on Friday.

The Paris police chief was fired over his handling of the violence, which saw dozens of windows shattered by people hurling paving stones and wielding hammers and other makeshift weapons.

The protests began in rural France on November 17 over fuel tax increases and quickly ballooned into a full-scale anti-government rebellion.

In a Facebook video this week, Maxime Nicolle one of the movement’s figureheads, explained the periodic rioting in Paris and other cities as the result of "40 years of being beaten psychologically and financially" by successive governments.