Macron calls for order after 'yellow vest' attack on police

Clare Byren, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 24 2018 07:48 AM

Protesters wearing yellow vests clash with police during a demonstration of the "yellow vests" movement in Nantes, France, Friday. Stephane Mahe, Reuters

PARIS - French President Emmanuel Macron called for "order" on Sunday after a sixth weekend of "yellow vest" anti-government protests that saw dwindling participation and a violent attack on police in Paris.

Speaking during a visit to the Saharan 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.

Nearly 40,000 people took part in a sixth round of nationwide protests on Saturday, according to the interior ministry -- around half the number who 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, 3 police officers on motorbikes were forced to make a hasty escape after coming under attack near the Champs Elysees from demonstrators who threw 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 2 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 the 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 -- 2 other incidents seen as evidence of growing radicalization and the presence of extremists within the movement.

"There can be no trivializing 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, his aloof, top-down governing style, and the political class as a whole.

Last week, Macron sought to 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 TRIAL

Around 2,000 people demonstrated in Paris on Saturday, compared with 4,000 the previous week, 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.

Drouet was released on parole on Sunday and will face trial on June 5 for "carrying a prohibited category D weapon", a judicial source told AFP.

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 , saying 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.

Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud tweeted on Sunday that 41,000 employees are either "partially active" or "technically unemployed" due to the closure of businesses linked to the violence over the last 5 weeks.

Ten people have died in incidents linked to the demonstrations, mostly in accidents at roadblocks set up by the protesters.