French authorities are bracing for the possibility of more riots and violence at planned anti-government protests this weekend.
The government is deploying tens of thousands of police and security forces across the country, while in Paris, museums, theatres and shops announced they would close on Saturday as a precaution – including the iconic Eiffel Tower.
Police unions and city authorities held emergency meetings to decide how to handle the protests, which are being held despite Emmanuel Macron’s surrender to marchers demanding the scrapping of a planned fuel tax hike.
Join Indpendent Minds
For exclusive articles, events and an advertising-free read for £5.99 €6.99 $9.99 a month
Get the best of The Independent
With an Independent Minds subscription for just £5.99 €6.99 $9.99 a month
Prime minister Edouard Philippe told senators on Thursday the government would deploy “exceptional” security measures for the protests in Paris and elsewhere.
Speaking on TF1 television, Mr Philippe said 89,000 police officers will be deployed on Saturday across France – up from 65,000 last weekend.
In Paris alone, 8,000 police officers will be mobilised. They will be equipped with a dozen armoured vehicles – a first in a French urban area since 2005.
Some “yellow vest” protesters, French union officials and prominent politicians across the political spectrum called for calm on Thursday after the worst rioting in Paris in decades last weekend.
Mr Macron agreed to abandon the fuel tax hike, part of his plans to combat global warming, but protesters’ demands have now expanded to other issues hurting French workers, retirees and students.
In a move questioned by both critics and supporters, the president has recently disappeared from public view.
The prime minister reiterated the government’s plan to scrap a fuel tax rise planned by the previous government because of the “extreme tensions” France is facing.
“No tax deserves to put civil peace in danger,” Mr Philippe said.
The rioting in Paris has worried tourists, prompted the cancellation of four French league football matches this weekend around the country and damaged the local economy at the height of the holiday shopping season.
Rampaging groups last weekend threw cobblestones through Paris storefronts and looted valuables in some of the city’s richest neighbourhoods.
The Eiffel Tower, along with more than a dozen museums, two theatres and other cultural sites in Paris, will be closed on Saturday for security reasons. The Paris Opera has cancelled planned performances on Saturday at its two Parisian sites.
Two music festivals in Paris have been postponed and the Arc de Triomphe remains closed since it was damaged in last weekend’s protest, which left over 130 people injured.
Paris police have also urged shops in the city’s high-end Champs-Elysees area to close on Saturday as a precaution.
Protests simmered on Thursday in several French regions.
Scores of protesting teens clashed with police at a high school west of Paris, as part of nationwide student protests over new university admissions procedures and rising administrative fees.
Drivers wearing their signature yellow safety vests continued to block roads around France, expanding their demands to include broader tax cuts and wider social benefits.
A small union representing police administrators called for a strike on Saturday, which could further complicate security measures. Two police union officials said they are worried that radical troublemakers from both the far right and far left will hijack Saturday’s protests.
Meanwhile, videos on social media of police beating protesters at a Burger King near the Champs-Elysees have stoked the protesters’ anger. A police spokeswoman said on Thursday an investigation is underway into the incident and police are examining other videos circulating online for possible violations.
Mr Macron, the central target of the protests, has been largely invisible all week. After winning the election overwhelmingly last year, the 40-year-old pro-business centrist has sought to make France more competitive globally. But his efforts have alienated even some supporters with badly explained reforms like tax cuts for the rich to spur investment in France.
Many protesters feel Mr Macron has an elitist, out-of-touch attitude that ignores the country’s high taxes and high unemployment.
They felt the increased fuel tax in particular favoured wealthy city folk who use public transportation over poorer rural residents who must drive to work or school or shops.
Mr Macron does not face re-election until 2022 and his party has a strong majority in parliament, but his political opponents are increasingly vocal and plan a no-confidence vote in the government next week.
Mr Philippe on Thursday rejected suggestions that he resign. He stressed the lower house of parliament voted Wednesday in favour of the government’s measures to roll back a gas tax hike that had fuelled the unrest.
Clement Rozey, manager of a motorcycle shop in western Paris, spent two days and nights cleaning up after watching helplessly last weekend as thugs smashed his shop windows and emptied his shelves. He has boarded up the store and is among those staying closed on Saturday.
“We’re going to have a security company with security guards inside and outside the shop,” Mr Rozey said. “Everything has been fenced off, several times.”
Yet he remains sympathetic to the protest movement.
“Just like everybody, we’re strangled [financially] after the 15th of the month,” he said, referring to the day when many French workers are paid. The protesters “are defending a cause, they’re following through and rightly so. We support them whole-heartedly.”
But violent troublemakers who pillage and riot?
“That’s something else,” Mr Rozey said.
Additional reporting by AP