By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS (Reuters) – French police fired water cannon and fired tear gas in Paris on Saturday to drive back protesters marking the first anniversary of anti-government “yellow vest” demonstrations.
Demonstrators, many clad in black and hiding their faces, vandalised an HSBC bank branch at the Place d’Italie. They set trash bins on fire and hurled cobblestones and bottles at riot police while building barricades.
Several cars were set ablaze. Police responded with tear gas and a water cannon.
Paris police prefect Didier Lallement cancelled permission for a scheduled demonstration in view of the violence.
“Our response will be very firm. All those who are hiding their face, all those who are throwing stones are going to be called in for questioning,” he told a news conference.
“People who came to Place d’Italie to destroy…and were stupid enough to stay, will be called in for questioning,” he added.
Some 105 people had been taken in for questioning, he said.
Earlier, clashes broke out between demonstrators and police near the Porte de Champerret, close to the Arc de Triomphe, as protesters were preparing to march across town towards Gare d’Austerlitz.
Police also intervened to prevent a few hundred demonstrators from occupying the Paris ring road.
The yellow vest protests, named for the high-visibility jackets worn by demonstrators, erupted in November 2018 over fuel price hikes and the high cost of living. The demonstrations spiralled into a broader movement against President Emmanuel Macron and his economic reforms.
The protests have lost strength in recent months, going from tens of thousands of participants to just a few thousand, but the movement’s leaders called for people to turn out on Saturday to mark the first anniversary.
At its peak in late 2018, the movement grew to up to 300,000 people.
Protests have been banned near tourists spots such as the Eiffel Tower and 20 subway stations were closed on Saturday.
The yellow vest movement was one of the toughest challenges to Macron’s presidency before it dwindled in the early summer.
It evolved from nationwide road blockades into a series of often-violent demonstrations that pitted rowdy protesters with police and ravaged Paris and other major cities in the country.
The yellow vest crisis forced Macron to make policy concessions and delay the next big wave of reforms, including overhauling the pension and unemployment systems.
Macron’s plans to simplify the unwieldy and expensive pension system, which he says will make it fairer, is particularly unpopular.
Trade unions have called on railway workers, Paris public transport staff, truck drivers and civil servants to strike against the pensions overhaul on Dec. 5, and in some cases beyond.
Students and yellow vest protesters have called for people to join forces with the unions.
One slogan written on a wall on Place d’Italie on Saturday said: “December 5. Early retirement for Macron”
(Reporting by Dominique Vidalon, additional reporting Ricard Lough, Editing by Angus MacSwan)