Respite in Paris; Fewer protesters take to the streets

PARIS — France’s yellow vest protesters, who have brought chaos to Paris over the past few weeks with their economic demands, demonstrated in sharply reduced numbers Saturday at the start of the Christmas and New Year holidays.

The number of protesters on the French capital’s elegant Champs-Elysees Avenue was down sharply. Paris police said only 2,000 protesters took to the streets, compared to 4,000 a week before and 10,000 the prior week. Police arrested 109 people and detained seven, compared to the several hundred arrested two weeks ago when the protests turned violent.

In stark contrast to the last few weekends, tourists strolled down the avenue near the Arc de Triomphe monument, holiday shoppers were out in force and the grandest of Parisian boulevards remained open for traffic.

Tensions arose at nightfall, though, when protesters gathered on the Champs-Elysees and police fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators.

Earlier in the day, protesters appeared disorganized, with scattered groups walking randomly across the capital. A few hundred protesters cordoned by police marched toward the Madeleine Church near the presidential Elysee Palace but were stopped in a small adjacent street. Tempers frayed and police with batons fired tear gas to repel a few demonstrators trying to break through a police line.

The protests, which have morphed from an outcry against a fuel tax hike to incorporate a wide array of economic concerns, are still having a knock-on effect across France.

The palace of Versailles just outside Paris was shut down for the day Saturday after yellow vest protesters said they will demonstrate at the famous chateau, home to a succession of French kings until the French Revolution in 1789.

But only a few protesters showed up in Versailles. Most gathered peacefully at the foot of the city’s Sacre-Coeur basilica in the picturesque neighbourhood of Montmartre.

Paris’ other big tourist hotspots such as the Louvre museum and the Eiffel Tower, which had closed amid earlier weekend protests this month, both remained open.

French President Emmanuel Macron appears to have taken some of the anger out of the protests by offering concessions like tax-free overtime and a freeze on gas and electricity prices this winter. The measures are expected to cost an estimated 10 billion euros ($1.14 billion).

Much of France, but particularly Paris, has endured weeks of protests that at times descended into violence. Ten people have died since the start of the movement in November, mostly in traffic accidents. French media said a man died Friday night near the southern city of Perpignan after his car slammed into a truck that had stopped near a group of protesters.

Outside Paris, around 200 traffic roundabouts remained occupied by protesters across the country. In southern France near the Spanish border, dozens of demonstrators blocked trucks and chanted “Macron, resign!”

In central France near Saint-Etienne, protesters blocked a major road and set fires but shops remained open in the city.

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