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France's 'yellow vest' protest numbers sharply down, government figures show

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France's 'yellow vest' protest numbers sharply down, government figures show
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REUTERS
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Turnout for a 16th round of "yellow vest" protests in France on Saturday was lower than last week and marches were largely peaceful, in a relief for President Emmanuel Macron who has struggled to find a response to the movement.

The interior ministry said it had counted 39,300 protesters nationwide, of which 4,000 were in Paris.

Last week the ministry had said it counted 46,600 people nationwide, including 5,800 in the capital - well down on the more than 300,000 who marched at the start of the movement in November, in a protest which degenerated into violent clashes with police in subsequent weeks.

Protesters marched largely peacefully on Saturday from the Arc de Triomphe to Place Denfert-Rochereau on the residential left bank, though water cannon were briefly used to douse protesters on the Champs Elysees boulevard.

Tear gas and water cannon were also used in Bordeaux, and in Toulouse, where some protesters marched behind a "cacatov party" banner - a play on Molotov cocktail firebombs - encouraging people to throw "poo-bombs" at police.

There were no reports of anyone being hit by a "catatov", but the threat of excrement projectiles was of concern to reporters covering the marches in Toulouse and Paris.

Despite the lower turnout, large parts of central Paris were in lockdown as thousands of police cordoned off key areas around the presidential palace and government buildings.

"Stop this violence ... the place to express your view in a democratic way is at the debates," Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud told LCI television, referring to government-organised nationwide debates where citizens can express their views.

The gradual fizzling out of the movement is a boon for Macron's centrist government, which has struggled to respond to a diffuse and largely leaderless movement that started as a protest against high fuel prices but has morphed into a broad anti-government protest.

After boosting government support for low-income workers by some 10 billion euros ($11.4 billion) at the start of the year and starting a series on marathon debates with local representatives, Macron's approval ratings have gradually recovered in recent weeks.

Last week, an Odoxa poll showed the percentage of people who consider Macron a good president rose to 32 per cent, back to where it was when the protests started and off a low of 27 per cent in mid-December as protesters rampaged through central Paris and other cities.