France’s “Yellow Vests” have taken to the streets for a 10th straight weekend of anti-government protests, despite attempts by President Emmanuel Macron to channel their anger into a series of town hall debates.
The president went on the counter-offensive this week with the launch of his “grand national debate”, spending hours in rural France debating with disgruntled mayors.
But tens of thousands of “yellow vests” refused Saturday to demobilise.
In Paris, several thousand people, many waving placards calling for Macron to resign or condemning police violence, marched in freezing temperatures.
The rally in Paris, as well as those in several other cities, ended in sporadic clashes, with police using tear gas and water cannon to disperse hooded protesters who threw paving stones and bottles.
But for the second consecutive week there were no signs of the chaos and destruction seen over several successive weekends in the capital.
Turnout was closely watched for signs of possible fatigue in the movement as it enters its third month and Macron’s “great national debate” gains momentum.
An estimated 84,000 demonstrators took to the streets on Saturday, including about 7,000 in the French capital.
Some 80,000 police were deployed to keep the peace.
The “yellow vests” protests – named after the fluorescent jackets French motorists are required to carry in their cars – began in November over plans to raise fuel taxes. The number of demonstrators on Saturday was roughly the same as last week.
The fuel tax hikes were subsequently scrapped, yet the movement has morphed into a broader protest against Macron’s government and general anger over taxes and the cost of living.
‘Divorcing our elites’
This week, the French president kickstarted two months of nationwide discussions on issues ranging from taxation to public services, spending over 12 hours debating with mayors in the north and southwest of the country.
Michel, a stocky 53-year-old computer engineer from the Paris suburbs, who returned to the capital Saturday for his ninth demonstration in as many weeks, said he would boycott the discussions.
“It’s over. We’re divorcing our elites and there can be no getting back,” the father of three, who did not wish to give his full name for fear it could cost him his job, told AFP news agency.
Macron was elected at the head of a grassroots movement that went door-to-door asking the French what kind of changes were needed.
But once in office he adopted a top-down approach more in keeping with that of post-war president Charles de Gaulle.
He vigorously defended his reforms in this week’s town hall meetings, while at the same time assuring he was open to making adjustments.
Many “yellow vests” however see the debates as an attempt to drain support from their movement.
Marie-Helene Guais, a well-dressed 60-year-old marching in Paris, accused the government of “not addressing the real issues”.
“What I want is citizen-sponsored referendums so that citizens can repeal laws, oversee spending and recall senior officials or even the president if they want,” she said, echoing one of the protesters’ top demands.
The “Disarm” collective, a local group that campaigns against police violence, has counted 98 cases of serious injuries since the beginning of protests, including 15 cases of people losing an eye to rubber-coated bullets.
The police have pointed to repeated attacks on officers as justification for their sometimes heavy-handed approach.
Fortune tax impasse
Macron, who had never held public office before being elected president, has struggled to find ways to overcome the biggest challenge yet to his presidency.
In December, he scrapped the fuel tax increase that sparked the protests by car-dependent rural dwellers.
He also unveiled an $11.5bn package of wage increases and tax relief for low earners and retirees.
But the measures fall short of the mark for the protesters, who are demanding a radical policy shift in favour of low earners, buoyed by opinion polls that show widespread sympathy for their cause.
Macron has refused to row back on reforms aimed at making France more competitive, including his cuts to fortune tax on high earners. The 41-year-old former investment banker argues the tax repelled investors but polls show over two-thirds of the French wanting it reinstated.