Almost 1,000 in custody as French police use tear gas in effort to quell protests

The rumble of armoured police vans and the hiss of tear gas filled central Paris as French riot police fought to contain thousands of yellow-vested protesters.

Demonstrators vented their anger against the government on Saturday in a movement that has grown more violent by the week.

A ring of steel surrounded the president’s Elysee Palace – a key destination for the protesters – as police stationed vans and reinforced metal barriers throughout the area.

Groups of vandals tore steadily through some of the city’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, smashing and burning items.

Police and protesters also clashed in the southern French cities of Marseille and Toulouse.

The government’s plan was to prevent a repeat of the rioting on December 2 that damaged the Arc de Triomphe and injured 130 people.

Although Saturday’s protest in the French capital started out quietly, by early evening nearly 1,000 people had been taken into custody and 135 people had been injured.

A demonstrator plays a drum in Paris (Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP)

Some stores along the Champs-Elysees boarded up their windows as though bracing for a hurricane but the storm struck anyway, this time at the height of the holiday shopping season.

Protesters ripped off the plywood protecting the windows and threw flares and other projectiles as they were repeatedly repelled by tear gas and water cannon.

All of the city’s top tourist attractions, including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre museum, shut down for the day, fearing the kind of damage that had hit the Arc de Triomphe.

Underground stations in the city centre also closed and the US embassy warned its citizens to avoid all protest areas.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron (Gustavo Garello/AP)

Amid the melee, President Emmanuel Macron remained silent, as he has for the four weeks of a movement.

It started as a protest against a fuel tax hike and metamorphosed into a rebellion against high taxes, eroding living standards and what many see as his inability to address the concerns of France’s regions and ordinary people.

Before the clashes, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner had urged calm.

“I ask the yellow vests that want to bring about a peaceful message to not go with the hooligans,” he said.

Video: Marita Moloney

“We know that the hooligans are only strong because they hide behind the yellow vests, which hampers the security forces.”

An even larger environmental march moved peacefully Saturday toward the city’s distant Republique Plaza.

One sign read: “No climate justice without fiscal and social justice.”

The march came in support of UN climate talks taking place in Poland.

National police estimated the number of protesters in Paris at 8,000, although the yellow vests said their numbers were far higher.

Associated Press reporters saw city streets densely crowded with thousands of people.

French authorities deployed 8,000 security officers in the capital alone, among the 89,000 who fanned out around the country.

Riot police officers stand in front a burning bin during clashes in Marseille (Claude Paris/AP)

France’s yellow vest protesters include people with views that range from the far right to the far left.

The leaderless group is united primarily in its sense that Mr Macron and his government are out of touch.

“We are here to tell (Macron) our discontent,” said protester Myriam Diaz.

“Me, I’m not here to break things because I have four children so I am going to try to be safe for them, because they are afraid.

“But I still want to be here to say ‘stop, that’s enough, this has to stop’.”

Cyril, a 25-year-old bin lorry driver, came from Normandy with three other demonstrators to Paris.

Video: Marita Moloney

He said he earns 1,430 euros (£1,280) a month despite working 45 hours a week and has decided not to have children because doesn’t feel he can earn enough to raise them.

This was his third weekend of protesting in Paris.

“I’ve come to defend myself,” he said, adding Mr Macron’s mistake was trying to reform the French economy too quickly.

“He’s done more in 18 months than the others in 30 years.”

Protesters also blocked roads, roundabouts and tollbooths elsewhere in France and offshoot movements have emerged in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Belgian police fired tear gas and water cannon Saturday at yellow-vested protesters calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Charles Michel after they tried to breach a riot barricade.

The protesters in Brussels threw paving stones, road signs, fireworks, flares and other objects at police and about 100 were detained, many for carrying dangerous objects.

In the Dutch city of Rotterdam, a few hundred protesters in the high-visibility vests walked peacefully across the Erasmus Bridge singing and handing flowers to passers-by.

- Press Association

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