By Sybille de La Hamaide and Emmanuel Jarry
PARIS (Reuters) – French riot police fired tear gas and clashed with “yellow vest” protesters in central Paris on Saturday during the latest in a wave of demonstrations against the high cost of living that have shaken President Emmanuel Macron’s authority.
Authorities said 575 people had been searched and briefly arrested and 361 people of them remained in custody after police found potential weapons such as hammers, baseball bats and metal petanque balls on them.
Hundreds of protesters were milling around the Arc de Triomphe monument, which was defaced with anti-Macron graffiti last Saturday, when rioters also torched dozens of cars and looted shops in the worst rioting in Paris since May 1968.
A police spokeswoman told reporters there were about 1,500 protesters on the Champs Elysees boulevard. Large groups of people spilled into other areas and heading to eastern Paris, where a march against climate change was scheduled for the afternoon. Some also temporarily blocked the ring road circling central Paris.
“We took the train for 11 hours just to protest today. We feel scorned by these technocrats that govern us,” said Gilles Noblet, a demonstrator from the southwest region of Ariege.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe appealed for restraint.
“We will do all we can so that today can be a day without violence, so that the dialogue that we started this week can continue in the best possible circumstances,” he said on French television.
On Tuesday, Philippe announced the government was suspending planned increases to fuel taxes for at least six months to help defuse weeks of protests, the first U-turn by Macron since he came to power 18 months ago.
About 89,000 police were deployed across France on Saturday, some 8,000 of them in Paris.
“We have prepared a robust response,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told online news site Brut. He called on peaceful protesters not to get mixed up with “hooligans”.
“The troublemakers can only be effective when they disguise themselves as yellow vests. Violence is never a good way to get what you want. Now is the time for discussion,” he said.
“We have come here for a peaceful march, not to smash things. We want equality, we want to live, not survive,” said Guillaume Le Grac, 28, who works in a slaughterhouse in the town of Guingamp in Britanny.
Protesters, using social media, have billed the weekend as “Act IV” in a dramatic challenge to Macron and his policies.
Small groups of riot police moved quickly among protesters and clamped down on anyone trying to damage shops or public amenities.
Much of Paris looked like a ghost town, with museums, department stores closed on what should have been a festive pre-Christmas shopping day.
Many shops were boarded up to avoid looting and street furniture and construction site materials have been removed to prevent them from being used as projectiles.
Tourists were few and residents were advised to stay at home if at all possible. Dozens of streets were closed to traffic, while the Eiffel Tower and world-famous museums such as the Musee d’Orsay, the Centre Pompidou and the Louvre were shut.
“Tourists are a bit disoriented – no subway, no shopping, no museums… but they seem to take it in their stride,” said hotel receptionist Pascal, who declined to give his surname.
The protests, named after the high-visibility safety jackets French motorists have to keep in their cars, erupted in November over the squeeze on household budgets caused by fuel taxes.
Demonstrations have since swelled into a broad, sometimes violent rebellion against Macron, a challenge made more difficult to handle since the movement has no formal leader.
Authorities say the protests have been hijacked by far-right and anarchist elements bent on violence and stirring up social unrest in a direct affront to Macron and the security forces.
Despite the government’s climbdown over the fuel tax, the ‘yellow vests’ continue to demand more concessions, including lower taxes, a higher minimum wage, lower energy costs, better retirement benefits and even Macron’s resignation.