French police have deployed tear gas and water cannon in the capital, Paris, in a bid to drive back protesters marking the first anniversary of anti-government “yellow vest” demonstrations.
Demonstrators on Saturday, some clad in black and hiding their faces, vandalised an HSBC bank branch at the Place d’Italie.
They set trash bins on fire and hurled cobblestones and bottles at riot police while building barricades. Several cars were also set ablaze.
Paris police prefect Didier Lallement cancelled permission for a scheduled demonstration in view of the violence.
“Our response will be very firm. All those who are hiding their face, all those who are throwing stones are going to be called in for questioning,” he told a news conference, adding that more than 100 people had already been detained by the police.
Earlier, clashes broke out between demonstrators and police near the Porte de Champerret, close to the Arc de Triomphe, as protesters were preparing to march across town towards Gare d’Austerlitz.
Police also intervened to prevent a few hundred demonstrators from occupying the Paris ring road.
Elsewhere in France, some 700 people rallied in the eastern city of Lille while clashes broke out in the western city of Nantes where about 1,000 people turned out, the AFP news agency reported.
Movement loses momentum
The yellow vest protests – named after the high-visibility vests drivers are required to carry in their cars – erupted in mid-November 2018 over a fuel price increase but quickly spiralled into a broader movement against President Emmanuel Macron and his drive for economic reforms.
Protests have lost strength in recent months, going from tens of thousands of participants to just a few thousand, but its leaders had called on demonstrators to remobilise this Saturday, to celebrate the first anniversary. At its peak in late 2018, the movement grew to up to 300,000 people.
Corentin Pihel, 28, said he travelled to Paris from Montpellier to mark the anniversary.
He said he had joined the yellow vest movement two weeks after it began, identifying with its mission as a struggling student at the time.
“In the beginning, I found that the movement made a lot of sense, to mobilise from the bottom for better buying power,” Pihel told the Associated Press news agency.
“But after, it enlarged its communication to become much greater – it’s just people who want to live. And I felt a real solidarity.”
Saturday’s protests – which demonstrators dubbed “Act 53” of their weekly gatherings – marked the first serious clashes for months in central Paris between security forces and demonstrators.
Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from Paris, said those gathering in the capital were the “fringe … hardcore element” within the yellow vest movement.
“This isn’t anything like the huge protests that we saw earlier on in the year when many tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Paris and other cities like Bordeaux and Toulouse,” Barker said.
“So what’s the reason for the dwindling? To some extent, it has achieved one of its key aims getting the tax on diesel revoked, and [Macron] also coughed up $11m in financial support to low-income earners,” he added.
“The movement attracted a whole range of people from the far right, from the far left, and pretty much everyone in between, and because of that somewhat confused political identity, the [movement ] failed to [transform into] … a political movement.”
Macron’s reform agenda
The yellow vest movement was one of the toughest challenges to Macron’s presidency before it dwindled in the early summer.
It evolved from nationwide road blockades into a series of often-violent demonstrations that pitted rowdy protesters with police and ravaged Paris and other major cities in the country.
The rallies forced Macron to make policy concessions and delay the next big wave of reforms, including overhauling the pension and unemployment systems.
Macron’s plans to simplify the unwieldy and expensive pension system, which he says will make it fairer, is particularly unpopular.
Trade unions have called on railway workers, Paris public transport staff, truck drivers and civil servants to strike against the pensions overhaul on December 5, and in some cases beyond. Students and yellow vest protesters have called for people to join forces with the unions.