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Paris braces for new riots as 'Yellow Jacket' protests sweep France

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Paris braces for new riots as 'Yellow Jacket' protests sweep France

Image: 'Yellow Vests' Return to Paris Streets
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Jeff J Mitchell
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PARIS — Paris shut down Saturday as the city braced itself for what many fear will be the most violent protests in weeks of forceful anti-government demonstrations that have swept the country.

Protests that began earlier this month against planned tax hikes on gas have since morphed into a wider rebuke of Emmanuel Macron's presidency and an expression of anger at his attempts to reform France's long-ailing economy.

Almost eight in ten people in France support the protests, according to a poll published last weekby the Figaro newspaper and public radio broadcaster Franceinfo.

The French capital was largely deserted on Saturday morning as riot police waited on street corners and the first bands of protesters walked toward the Champs-Elysees, chanting the country's iconic national anthem and waving the tricolor flag as they passed the presidential palace.

Yellow Vests protesters walk down the Champs Elysees on Saturday.
Yellow Vests protesters walk down the Champs Elysees on Saturday.IAN LANGSDON

Store fronts along the world-famous street — the scene of last week's clashes between demonstrators and police — were barricaded behind plywood sheets in preparation for yet more violence.

Elsewhere hundreds of people were already in police custody, authorities said.

French authorities said they planned to deploy 8,000 police across the capital Saturday, as the Interior Minister Christophe Castaner warned "ultra-violent people" would try to descend into Paris's boulevards.

"According to the information we have, some radicalized and rebellious people will try to get mobilized tomorrow," Castaner told a press conference Friday.

Across town, Paris's glittering museums and galleries — including the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower — said they would not open their doors to the usual troop of holiday season tourists.

Soccer matches have also been called off across the country.

As Parisians prepared for what looked to be another weekend of destruction, the vast majority who spoke to NBC News on Friday said they supported the grievances of the so-called Yellow Jackets.

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While many said they were perturbed by the protests' escalating violence, they also said they shared the demonstrators' frustrations. Namely, the high-cost of living in France and Macron's appetite for reform.

"There is great anger in France at the moment," said André Rubinot, a retired baker whose old boulangerie stands in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. "The president has too many reforms and he is going about them too quickly without asking anyone — quick, quick, quick," he said.

Like others, Rubinot, lamented that life had become too expensive as he ticked off different household goods that had gone up in price. "A baguette is now one euro 20 cents," ($1.36) said the 68-year-old in disbelief.

The protests gained even more momentum this week after French farmers and trade unions vowed to join the fray. Students have also been protesting across France in a series of demonstrations against education reform, some have said they are protesting in solidarity with the "Yellow Jackets."

Joseph Downing, an expert in French politics at the London School of Economics, agreed that the protests were about "much more" than taxes on gas.

"It's this entire idea of the squeezed middle or the squeezed upper working-class person who feels an entitlement to an ever-increasing standard of living but is something that no politician can deliver," he said.

As different grievances on the palette of discontent begin to merge, many people in Paris said they thought it would become increasingly difficult for Macron to put an end to the unrest.

Several people who spoke to NBC News said the strength of the "Yellow Jackets" lies in the fact that the protest isn't specifically linked to any political party or union and therefore united swathes of the population.

"The politicians are afraid because they don't know how to stop it," said Julian Guillo, a 23-year-old property student who drank on the terrace of a bar which was in the process of being shuttered up. "It's not one organization, it's the people."

In a last-ditch attempt to quell the uproar, Macron agreed Wednesday to abandon the gas tax increases which he had previously defended as necessary to help reduce France's dependence on fossil fuels.

However, his concessions appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Many on the streets of Paris Friday accused Macron of not listening to the people and several of those that acknowledged his concession said it amounted to too little too late.

"The government should do more, it should have reacted better," said Abdul Asis, a 28-year-old construction worker who described himself as "100 percent behind the Yellow Jackets."

Several people directed their frustration directly at Macron who they described as out of touch.

"He's the president of the rich," said Louis Boyard, a student leader at the high-school student protest Friday. "The youth are angry, we are against Emmanuel Macron."

Among the many grievances listed at the protest were changes in university admissions procedures and fees, which students and teachers said would make admission more selective and limit access to higher education.

High school students hold banners during a demonstration march from place Stalingrad to place de la Republique in Paris on Dec. 7, 2018 to protest against the different education reforms including the overhauls and stricter university entrance requirements.
High school students hold banners during a demonstration march from place Stalingrad to place de la Republique in Paris on Dec. 7, 2018 to protest against the different education reforms including the overhauls and stricter university entrance requirements.Philippe Lopez

"We have to get rid of Macron to get to a fairer society," said Homa Javadi, 18, who said she supported the cause of the so-called Yellow Jackets.

It's not just the students who lay the blame at Macron's door. Rubinot, the baker, said the president talked down to the people and portrayed himself as "king-like."

The fact that Macron has largely kept a low-profile since surveying the damage wrought on the Arc de Triomphe after protests last weekend, has further angered those looking for greater concessions from the presidential palace.

"He's not saying anything and the country's on fire — he's mocking the people," said Meredith Saban, 38, a director of a human resources firm said who was having a cigarette on the Champs-Elysee.

But while the anger is widespread, the appetite for violence and destruction is not.

"Vandalising the Arc de Triomphe is unacceptable," said Lea Chauvet, a high school graduate who was chatting with a friend outside the Pantheon, a mausoleum to the distinguished citizens of the republic.

"I wouldn't want to associate myself with people who destroy everything," she added, explaining one reason she would not go to the protest.

Those working on the Champs-Elysees, where damage from last week's riot is still visible, were particularly emphatic.

"I agree with the cause of the movement but not the ways it's carried out, not with the violence" said Said Bouchouack, a security guard at the cosmetics store Sephora on the Champs-Elysees.

"I was here last weekend and I thought to myself 'this is war,'" he said.