Protesters angry over pandemic restrictions drove toward Paris in scattered convoys of camper vans, cars and trucks Friday in an effort to blockade the French capital, despite a police ban.
The protesters organised online, galvanised in part by truckers who have blockaded Canada’s capital and blocked border crossings. But the French action has no clear leader or goal, and comes as months of protests against French government vaccination and other anti-virus rules have been waning.
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Paris region authorities deployed more than 7,000 police officers to tollbooths and other key sites to try to prevent a blockade. They threatened heavy fines and other punishments for those who defy the protest ban, which authorities said was necessary to prevent “risk to public order.”
“We have always safeguarded the right to protest … but we need harmony and we need a lot of collective goodwill,” President Emmanuel Macron told newspaper Ouest France, while urging calm.
His prime minister, Jean Castex, was more blunt. Citizens had the right to protest but not gridlock the capital, he said.
Some of the French groups are threatening to continue their journey to Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the European Union, and to meet up there with drivers from other countries on Monday.
Belgian authorities also banned the threatened blockade, and a similar “freedom convoy” planned for Friday in Vienna was cancelled after authorities banned it.
Brussels Mayor Philippe Close said in a Twitter message that officials decided to ban the ”Freedom Convoy” protest because organisers failed to seek permission to hold the event.
The protests would mirror those of truckers in Canada who have blockaded border crossings and paralysed downtown Ottawa.
Some far-right and other figures in France appeared to be trying to revitalise their own protest movements, which represent a small minority of French citizens, by capitalising on the global attention to the Canadian protesters.
The people taking part in the convoys embodied a mix of causes and vehicles, from trucks to motorcycles and camper vans. Some sported yellow vests, a symbol of a French protest movement against perceived economic injustice which largely fizzled in 2019 after the government responded to some of the participants’ concerns.
FranceBleu radio in the Vaucluse quoted the head of a transport company as saying he and three employees would rally to Paris in separate vehicles. “It’s truly a peaceful convoy,” FranceBleu quoted the man identified only as Sylvain, who was leaving from the town of Sorgues.
“The idea is to make ourselves seen, heard. We have to end this health pass,” he was quoted as saying, referring to a COVID-19 pass France requires to get into restaurants and other public venues. With a presidential election in two months, he said, “Our governors are abandoning a bit the people.”
France has seen weekly protests against vaccine rules and virus-related restrictions for several months, notably by far-right groups. Participation in the protests has waned recently. The vast majority of French adults are vaccinated against COVID-19.