By Celia Mebroukine and Antoine Boddaert
PARIS (Reuters) – Thousands of protesters took to the streets of French cities on Saturday in the fifth weekend of nationwide demonstrations against Emmanuel Macron’s government, despite calls to hold off after a gun attack in Strasbourg earlier this week.
In Paris, police were out in force to contain possible outbursts of violence. But several major stores, such as the Galeries Lafayette, were open to welcome Christmas shoppers.
Numbers were down compared to Saturday last week, a police source said.
Teargas was fired at small groups of protesters in brief clashes with riot police near the Champs-Elysees.
Close by, a handful of topless activists from the feminist protest group Femen faced security forces a few meters away from the Elysee Palace, the president’s residence.
The ‘yellow vest’ movement started in mid-November with protests at junctions and roundabouts against fuel tax increases, but quickly became a wider mobilisation against Macron’s economic policies.
Successive weekends of protests in Paris have lead to vandalism and violent clashes with security forces.
Loic Bollay, 44, marching on the Champs-Elysees in a yellow vest, said the protests were more subdued than in previous weeks but the movement would go on until the demonstrators’ grievances were addressed.
“Since the Strasbourg attack, it is calmer, but I think next Saturday and the following Saturdays…it will come back.”
The Interior Minister said around 69,000 police were active on Saturday with a reinforced presence in the cities of Toulouse, Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne.
A police source told Reuters some 16,000 protesters had been counted in France, excluding Paris, by 1100 GMT, compared to 22,000 at the same time on Dec. 8.
In Paris, where groups of hundreds of protesters marched in splintered groups in several neighbourhoods, 85 had been arrested by around midday, according to a Paris police official.
On Friday, President Macron called for a return to calm in France after nearly a month of protests by the so-called ‘yellow vest’ movement against his government’s policies. The demonstrations have hit growth and caused widespread disruption.
“France needs calm, order and a return to normal,” Macron said, after a meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels.
In a televised address to the nation on Monday, Macron announced wage rises for the poorest workers and tax cuts for pensioners in further concessions meant to end the movement but many said they would maintain pressure.
The government, as well as several unions and opposition politicians called on protesters to stay off the streets on Saturday, after four people were killed in a gun attack at a Christmas market in the historic city of Strasbourg.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; Writing by Matthias Blamont; Editing by Ros Russell)