France's 'yellow vest' protesters gather on decisive weekend
"Yellow vest" demonstrators began gathering on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Saturday morning for a fifth weekend of protests in defiance of calls by the French government to stay home.
President Emmanuel Macron, facing the biggest crisis of his presidency, announced a series of concessions on Monday to defuse the explosive "yellow vest" movement which sprang up in rural and small-town France last month.
He is hoping the package of tax and minimum wage measures, coupled with a terror attack on Tuesday night in Strasbourg and bitter winter weather, will help end a month of violent clashes and disruption.
The last three Saturdays have been marked by violent demonstrations, with burning barricades, pillaging and clashes with police in cities across France.
"Last time, we were here for taxes," a 28-year-old called Jeremy told AFP as he joined others gathering in freezing cold on the Champs-Elysees shortly after 8:00 am (0700 GMT)
"This is for the institutions: we want more direct democracy," he said, adding that people needed to "shout to make themselves heard."
The "yellow vests" have made dozens of demands of the government but have no agreed programme or nominated leaders, making the task of negotiating with them difficult.
Until now, a clear majority of French people had backed the protests, which sprung up initially over tax hikes on transport fuel before snowballing into wide opposition to Macron's pro-business agenda and style of governing.
But two polls published on Tuesday - in the wake of Macron's concessions - found the country was now split broadly 50-50 on whether the protests should continue.
"We expect slightly less people (in the streets) but individuals who are slightly more determined ," junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said late Friday.
Around 8,000 police will be on duty in Paris on Saturday, the same number as last weekend, backed up by 14 armoured vehicles, water cannons and horses which are used for crowd control.
Around 90,000 security forces were mobilised last Saturday across France and 2,000 people were detained, around half of them in Paris.
"That people demonstrate, no problem, but the vandalism is appalling," Maria, who manages the Le Vin Coeur restaurant near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris told AFP on Saturday morning.
Like thousands of other business and restaurant owners across the capital, she was apprehensive and ready to pull down her shutters and close at the first whiff of teargas.
Need for calm
Many of the "yellow vest" figureheads, along with leaders of the far-left Unbowed France party, have urged protesters to turn out on Saturday to pressure the government into making further concessions.
Others have suggested that the mostly small town and rural protesters should show resolve by rallying in the regions rather than heading for the capital.
France "needs calm, order and to go back to its normal functioning," Macron said Friday.
On Thursday, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux had called on protesters to stay put.
"It would be better if everyone could go about their business calmly on Saturday, before the year-end celebrations with their families, instead of demonstrating and putting our security forces to work once again," he said.
He was speaking in the wake of an attack Tuesday in the eastern city of Strasbourg, which left four dead and 12 wounded.
Interior minister Christophe Castaner also criticised attacks on the police at a time when the terror threat remains high in France after a string of atrocities since 2015.
"I find it inadmissable that today we are applauding our police and then tomorrow some people think it's okay to go and throw stones at them," Castaner said on Friday morning after the gunman in the Strasbourg attack was found and shot dead.
In a bid to end the protests, Macron announced a package of measures estimated by economists to cost up to 15 billion euros (R231.45 billion) on Monday.
He cancelled the planned fuel tax hikes, offered a rise in the minimum wage, tax relief for pensioners and tax-free overtime for workers in 2019.
Images of road blocks, massive traffic jams and mobs rioting on the streets of Paris have dented France's image, as well as Macron's hopes of forcing through more business-friendly reforms, analysts say.