French President Emmanuel Macron called for “order” on Sunday after a sixth weekend of “yellow vest” anti-government protests marked by dwindling participation and a violent attack on police in Paris.
Speaking during a visit to the central African state of Chad where he was visiting French troops serving in a counter-terrorism force, Macron said: “There must be order now, calm and harmony. Our country needs it.”
“It needs harmony, unity, sincere commitment to strong collective causes and we must heal the divisions,” said the 41-year-old centrist, who has struggled to tamp down the anger of the working poor in small town and rural France over falling spending power and policies seen as tilted towards the rich.
A total of 38 600 people took part in a sixth round of nationwide protests on Saturday, according to the interior ministry — around half the number that demonstrated a week earlier.
In Paris, the scene of fierce clashes and widespread destruction in previous weeks, the protests were mainly peaceful.
But as evening fell, violence broke out again on the iconic Champs-Elysees avenue.
In one incident that caused widespread outrage, a group of three police officers on motorbike were forced to make a hasty escape after coming under attack near the Champs-Elysees from a group of demonstrators, who threw electric scooters, paving stones and other objects at them.
A video of the incident, which was widely shared on social media, showed one officer pulling his gun and pointing it at the advancing protesters.
He and his two colleagues — one of whom had his motorbike knocked to the ground — then made their getaway.
The video showed that, seconds before the attack, the police had lobbed stun grenades at a group of protesters, who were some distance away.
‘Incredible violence towards police’
Speaking to BFMTV channel Macron said those responsible for the violence would face “the most severe” legal punishment.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe for his part denounced the “incredible violence towards the police”.
He also took aim at protesters who sang a song by controversial comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, a convicted anti-Semite, outside Sacre-Coeur church in Paris as well as those who decapitated an effigy of Macron in the western Charente region — two other incidents seen as evidence of growing radicalisation and the presence of extremists within the movement.
“There can be no trivialising of such gestures which must draw unanimous condemnation and be punished by the law,” Philippe tweeted.
The number of demonstrators has been trending downwards since 282 000 people turned out for the first Saturday protest against planned anti-pollution fuel tax hikes on November 17.
From there the protests quickly morphed into a full-scale revolt against Macron’s policies, aloof, top-down governing style, and the political class as a whole.
Last week, Macron sought the defuse the crisis by announcing a 10-billion-euro ($11.4-billion) package of measures to help pensioners and low-paid workers.
Since then the “yellow vests” have been split between moderates willing to engage in dialogue with the government and radicals intent on remaining at the barricades.
Leader faces charges
Around 2 000 people demonstrated in Paris on Saturday, compared to 4 000 a week previously, police said.
A total of 142 people were detained and 19 taken into police custody in the capital, including one of leaders of the movement, Eric Drouet.
Macron’s concessions, which were fast-tracked through parliament in 12 days, marked a stunning climbdown for a leader who staked his reputation on not being swayed by protesters.
On Sunday he told a press conference with his Chadian counterpart Idriss Deby that the measures were a response to the “righteous anger of the French people”.
During an earlier meeting with a group of Chadian women he said he had “sometimes been mistaken” in trying to implement a one-size-fits-all approach to greening the economy and said it was “more intelligent to draw on local initiatives”.
The protests have dealt a blow to the French economy, particularly the retail trade, ahead of Christmas.
Junior economy minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher said French stores reported an average drop-off of 25% in sales compared with the same period a year earlier.
Ten people have died in incidents linked to the demonstrations, mostly in accidents at roadblocks set up by the protesters.
© Agence France-Presse