French yellow vest protesters condemn injuries, blame police

PARIS — France’s yellow vest protesters were back on the streets Saturday to keep up the pressure on French President Emmanuel Macron’s government and to decry the number of people being injured by police during anti-government demonstrations.

Multiple protests were taking place in Paris and other cities to denounce Macron’s economic policies, which they view as favouring the rich, for the 12th straight weekend of demonstrations.

In Paris, scuffles broke out between some protesters and police around the Republic plaza, northeast of the city centre, where hundreds of demonstrators headed on Saturday afternoon. Police appeared to be trying to disperse the crowd.

Thousands of demonstrators in the French capital paid tribute to the yellow vests injured during clashes with police, an effort to unify growing divisions in the grassroots movement.

Several competing groups of yellow vests said they are getting ready to present candidates for the European Parliament election in May, while other figures insist the movement must remain non-political.

The government says around 2,000 people have been injured in protests since the movement began Nov. 17, including at least four serious eye injuries. Separately, 10 people have died in traffic accidents related to yellow vest actions.

Jerome Rodrigues, a prominent member of the movement who suffered an eye injury last week, was widely applauded by the crowd.

A French police investigation was still ongoing to determine how Rodrigues was injured. Video images show Rodriguez collapsed on the ground last Saturday near the Bastille monument, where protesters throwing projectiles clashed with police seeking to disperse them.

Franck Dideron, a 20-year-old protester, said he was protesting peacefully, speaking on the phone to his mother, when his eye was injured by a rubber bullet fired by police during a Dec. 1 protest near the Arc de Triomphe monument in Paris.

“The policeman shot me voluntarily. And I was just turning around — how was that violent behaviour? How was I dangerous for him?” he asked The Associated Press. “Today, I would like to see this policeman come and stand in front of me, look me in the eye and tell me why he shot me.”

Antonio Barbetta, 40 year-old protester with injured foot, call the French police’s response to the yellow vests marches “excessive.”

“I’m in contact with a large number of injured people and I can tell you that these were non-violent people. I myself am against all forms of violence on either side,” he said.

France’s Council of State ruled Friday that security forces have a right to use controversial high-velocity rubber bullets for crowd control.

Benjamin Cauchy, a yellow vest spokesman from southern France who came to the Paris protest, called it a “regrettable decision.”

The weapon “is extremely harmful, imprecise and in the end is causing more sorrow than security,” he told BFM television.

The Council of State noted the frequency of violence and property destruction at protests. It concluded that authorities’ use of the devices doesn’t constitute a “grave attack” on the freedom to demonstrate or the right not to be exposed to inhuman or degrading treatment.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner tweeted Friday that “if the law was respected, there would be no injured.”

A bill is under debate in the French parliament to strengthen measures against troublemakers who use protests to attack police. Rights groups and opposition lawmakers, however, say it goes too far in restricting the right to protest.

The bill could authorize local prefects to prevent people they see as a serious threat to public order from taking part in protests. It could also make it a crime for protesters to conceal their faces during demonstrations.

Around 69,000 people nationwide took part in protests last week, down from more than 80,000 during the previous two weekends, according to the French Interior Ministry.

The yellow vests movement began in November and was named after the fluorescent safety vests that French motorists must carry in case of emergency.

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