French PM calls for 'national unity' after Paris violence

Official estimates say 125,000 protesters took to streets across France on Saturday, with 10,000 in Paris alone.

    French PM calls for 'national unity' after Paris violence
    A view of the Place de la Republique as protesters wearing yellow vests gather during a national day of protest [Stephane Mahe/Reuters]

    A huge cleanup operation has been launched in Paris after France's "yellow vest" protesters took to the streets for the fourth week running.

    Demonstrators clashed with riot police in the French capital on Saturday, setting fire to cars, burning barricades and smashing windows in pockets of violence, but a heavy security deployment prevented a repeat of last week's destruction.

    Even though the fuel tax rises that sparked the protests have been cancelled, official figures showed 125,000 protesters turned out across France on Saturday, slightly down from 136,000 last week.

    Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said it was time for dialogue "to knit our national unity back together".

    Discussions with peaceful protesters "must continue", Philippe said. 

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    "No tax is that important to threaten national unity. We must continue with dialogue, with coming together."

    French President Emmanuel Macron, who has not spoken publicly since last week's violent scenes in the capital, would soon propose measures "to bring the French nation together", the prime minister added.

    French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner praised the police for containing much of the unrest, while Macron thanked the security forces for their work in a tweet. 

    Translation: To all [the security] forces that mobilised today, thank you for the courage and the exceptional professionalism you showed.

    Security forces arrested 1,723 people across France, according to the interior ministry, 1,220 of whom were ordered held in custody.

    Castaner also said 118 protesters were injured, mostly in traffic accidents, compared with 220 last week, while 17 members of security forces were injured, down from 284 last Saturday.

    Gendarmerie police said they had checked more than 5,000 people on the roads around the capital in the morning, confiscating potential weapons and protective equipment.

    The relative calm seemed to owe more to the revised police tactics than to the government's decision to cancel the petrol and diesel tax rises that were due to take effect next year.

    Police fired tear gas canisters and pepper spray at protesters in central Paris and other parts of France.

    In Paris, authorities counted 10,000 demonstrators, far more than last week's official estimate of 5,500.

    "Yellow vest" protesters in the capital seemed unimpressed by the government's concessions, as chants of "Macron, resign," rang out.

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    "We did the first act, Macron did not hear us, act two, he ignored us, act three, we don't exist, today we do act four to see if he reacts," a protester in Paris told Al Jazeera on Saturday.

    Many other protesters believe they are fighting for "dignity" and better conditions in France. 

    "They don't hear the word dignity, dignity is all we want, the dignity of making a living out of our work," a protester said.

    Since the government scrapped the fuel tax rise and froze gas and electricity prices for 2019, the "yellow vest" movement has continued with a broader set of economic demands, including lower taxes, higher salaries, cheaper energy costs, better retirement provisions and even Macron's resignation.

    Reporting from Paris on Sunday, Al Jazeera's David Chater said that Macron was likely to address the nation as soon as Monday.

    "On Friday, he brought in 15 mayors from around the country and he asked them, during a 3-hour session, what were they hearing from the people. They said, frankly, Mr. President 'they all hate you'. One of the mayors who has not been named, said 'they want your head on a stake'.

    "So he realises that it is very important for him now to try and bridge this huge gap. He's down on 23%, something like 66% of the country support the 'yellow vest' revolt, which is growing all the time, a huge number of demands. So he's got to appear, he's got to open that dialogue."

    Steve Bannon, the former strategist of US President Donald Trump, said at an event on Saturday in Brussels that the yellow vests in France are the "exact same type of people" that voted for Trump and for Brexit.

    Trump also said it was time to "end the ridiculous and extremely expensive Paris agreement".

    Left-wing Canadian author Naomi Klein, meanwhile, wrote on Twitter that the protests showed the need for a new approach to climate policy. "Neo-liberal" pro-business climate action was seen as "a class war, because it is", Klein tweeted.

    The protests also spilled over from France to Belgium and the Netherlands.

    On Saturday, hundreds of people took to the streets in the Netherlands demanding that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte steps down and their country exits the European Union.

    In Brussels, about 1,000 people staged protests. Nearly 400 protesters were arrested, according to police.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies