France was mobilizing tens of thousands of police officers and closing landmarks including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre as authorities warned that anti-government protests on Saturday could be even more violent than the ones that have crippled the country for weeks.
“According to the information we have, some radicalized and rebellious people will try to get mobilized tomorrow,” Interior minister Christophe Castaner told a press conference on Friday. “Some ultra-violent people want to take part.”
Authorities say 8,000 police will fan out across Paris, equipped with a dozen barricade-busting armoured vehicles that could be used for the first time in a French urban area since 2005.
“These vehicles can be very useful to protect buildings,” said Stanislas Gaudon, the head of police union Alliance. “And in case they set up barricades, we can quickly clear out the space and let our units progress.”
At the height of the festive shopping season, many Paris store owners were boarding up their shop fronts and have said they will remain shut Saturday for fear they may be in the line of any unrest between protesters and police.
Meanwhile, Paris police, fearing protesters could turn street furniture and construction site material into makeshift weapons, were removing all the glass containers, railings and building machines set up in high-risk areas including the world-renowned Champs-Elysees avenue, which would normally be packed with tourists and shoppers on a Saturday in early December.
The Nicolas wine chain, one of the biggest retailers in the country, cancelled all its wine tasting sessions scheduled for Saturday.
“It’s with an immense sadness that we’ll see our city partially brought to a halt, but your safety is our priority,” Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said. “Take care of Paris on Saturday because Paris belongs to all the French people.”
Across the country some 89,000 police will be mobilized, up from 65,000 last weekend when more than 130 people were injured and over 400 were arrested as protests degenerated into the worst street violence to hit Paris in decades.
Authorities also have cancelled six French league soccer matches around the country.
Since the unrest began on Nov. 17 in reaction to a sharp increase in diesel taxes, four people have been killed in accidents.
The protesters are collectively referred to as the “yellow vest” movement, in reference to the fluorescent safety outfit French motorists keep in their cars.
Amid the unrest, some of the protesters, French union officials and prominent politicians across the political spectrum have urged calm especially as French President Emmanuel Macron agreed to abandon the fuel tax hike that triggered the movement. However, protesters’ demands have now expanded to other issues hurting French workers, retirees and students.
Students opposing an education reform protested again Friday, a day after footage widely shared on social media showing the arrest of high school students protesting outside Paris prompted an outcry. Trade unions and far-left parties have lashed out at perceived police brutality.
The images, filmed Thursday at Mantes-la-Jolie, showed a group of students on their knees with their hands behind their head. They are being watched over by armed police officers whose faces are hidden by ski masks.
Interior minister Christophe Castaner said that 151 people were arrested in the small town, adding that some of them carried weapons. He said none of the students were injured.
The rioting has also had an economic impact at the height of the holiday shopping season. Rampaging groups last weekend threw cobblestones through Paris storefronts and looted valuables in some of the city’s richest neighbourhoods.
The national Federation of French markets said that Christmas markets have been “strongly impacted” and that its members registered “an average fall of their estimated figures between 30 and 40 per cent since the beginning of the movement of the yellow vests.”
In addition to the closure of the Eiffel Tower, many shops and museums across France, including the Louvre, Orsay Museum and the Grand Palais, will keep their doors shut on Saturday for safety reasons.
“We need to protect culture sites in Paris but also everywhere in France,” Culture Minister Franck Riester told RTL radio.
The Associated Press