Paris on knife-edge ahead of new 'yellow vest' protests

Businesses in Paris battened down the hatches this evening and streets were cleared of material that could be used as weapons amid fears of further violence ahead of¬†a fourth round of “yellow vest” protests.

The French capital experienced its worst riots in decades last weekend, plunging President Emmanuel Macron’s government into its deepest crisis so far.

The Arc de Triomphe war memorial was vandalised, dozens of cars torched and shops looted by the radical fringe of a three-week-old rebellion over taxes and inequality.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner vowed “zero tolerance” towards those aiming to wreak further destruction and mayhem during a new round of protests set for tomorrow.

“These past three weeks have seen the birth of a monster that has escaped its creators,” Mr Castaner told a news conference, adding: “It’s time now for dialogue.”

Shop boarded up in Paris
A shop on the Champs-Elysees in Paris is boarded up

Shops around the famous Champs-Elysees boulevard – epicentre of last week’s battle – were busy boarding up their windows and emptying them of merchandise today.

“We can’t take the risk,” said a manager at a Ducati motorcycle dealership as employees loaded luxury Italian racers onto trucks for safekeeping.

The operators of leading museums and landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre and Musee d’Orsay all said they would be closed tomorrow, along with department stores, operas, theatres and libraries.

Advice from Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs recommends that people avoid the area where protests are taking place.

It recommends that people “exercise a high degree of caution and stay informed of what is happening around you by monitoring local media, as protests may move quickly”.

It says to follow the advice of authorities and also to check for transport disruptions and for closures before setting out.

The US embassy issued a warning to Americans in Paris to “keep a low profile and avoid crowds”, a warning echoed by the Turkish foreign ministry for Turkish travellers.

The Belgian foreign ministry advised Belgians planning to visit Paris over the weekend to postpone their visit.

This week, Mr Macron gave in to some of the protesters’ demands for measures to help the poor and struggling middle classes, including scrapping a planned increase in fuel taxes and freezing electricity and gas prices in 2019.

But the “yellow vests”, who have become increasingly radicalised, are holding out for more.

Paris protests
Cars have been torched and shops looted over the last few weekends in Paris

The government has vowed a tough response in the event of further trouble.

Calls on social media for protesters to attack the police or march on the presidential palace have particularly rattled the authorities.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said 8,000 police would be deployed in Paris out of 89,000 nationwide, and that a dozen armoured vehicles would be stationed around the capital – a first.

The police were already facing accusations today of being heavy-handed.

A video showed officers in riot gear barking orders at dozens of high-school pupils kneeling on the ground with their hands behind their heads following a demonstration in Mantes-la-Jolie near Paris.

“Whatever wrong was done, nothing justifies this filmed humiliation of minors,” Socialist leader Olivier Faure tweeted.

The “yellow vests”, named after the high-visibility safety jackets worn by demonstrators, began blocking roads, fuel depots and shopping centres around France on 17 November over fuel price hikes.

Since then the movement has snowballed into a wider revolt against Mr Macron’s economic policies and his top-down approach to power.

Protests at dozens of schools over stricter university entrance requirements, and a call by farmers for demonstrations next week, have added to a sense of a government under siege.

Opposition parties, particularly on the far right and radical left, have sought to capitalise on the protests to try to bring about Mr Macron’s downfall.

The protesters accuse the centrist president of favouring the rich and city-dwellers over those trying to make ends meet in car-dependent rural and small-town France.

Many are calling on him to resign.

Today, Mr Castaner estimated the number of people still taking part in demonstrations at 10,000 nationwide.

“10,000 is not the people, it’s not France,” he argued, despite polls showing the protesters enjoying strong public support.