France Gears Up To Face New Riots; Paris Shuts Down
PARIS (AP) — France mobilized tens of thousands of police officers and made plans to shut down beloved tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre on the eve of anti-government protests that authorities feared could be even more violent than ones that have crippled the country for weeks.
The drastic security measures will put central Paris in a lockdown on Saturday, disrupting the plans of tens of thousands of tourists and residents.
Hundreds of shops in Paris planned to shut their doors as well, preferring to lose business during the key holiday shopping period rather than have their windows smashed in and their merchandise looted, as happened to many Paris stores last Saturday when an anti-government protest over rising taxes turned into a riot.
On Friday, workers across Paris lugged pieces of plywood and hammered boards over the windows of shops and businesses — making the plush Champs-Elysees neighborhood appear like it was bracing for a hurricane.
Some top French officials said that description was not far off.
“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 armored vehicles that could be used for the first time in a French urban area since the 2005 riots.
“These vehicles can be very useful to protect buildings,” said Stanislas Gaudon, head of the Alliance police union. “And in case they set up barricades, we can quickly clear out the space and let our units progress.”
Paris police, fearing that radical protesters could turn street furniture and construction materials into makeshift weapons, on Friday were removing all glass containers, railings and construction machines in high-risk areas. Those included 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, canceled 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, France is mobilizing some 89,000 police, up from 65,000 last weekend, when more than 130 people were injured and over 400 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 anti-government unrest began on Nov. 17 in reaction to a sharp increase in diesel taxes, four people have been killed in protest-related accidents. Now the demands of the “yellow vest” movement — named for the fluorescent safety vests that French motorists keep in their cars — are pressing for a wider range of benefits from the government to help French workers, retirees and students.
French President Emmanuel Macron agreed late Wednesday to abandon the fuel tax hike that triggered the movement, but their anger at his government has not abated. Macron, since returning from the G-20 meeting last weekend, has kept largely out of sight, a move that has puzzled both supporters and critics.
French students opposing changes in key high school tests protested again Friday, a day after footage widely shared on social media showed the arrest of protesting high school students outside Paris and 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 students on their knees with their hands behind their head being watched over by armed, masked police officers.
Castaner, the interior minister, said 151 people were arrested in the small town, some carrying weapons. He said none of the students were injured.
The rioting in France 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 neighborhoods.
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 percent since the beginning of the yellow vest movement.”
In addition to the closure of the Eiffel Tower, many shops and museums across Paris, including the Louvre, the Orsay Museum and the Grand Palais, will keep their doors shut on Saturday for safety reasons. Music festivals, operas and other cultural events in the French capital were cancelled.
“We need to protect culture sites in Paris but also everywhere in France,” Culture Minister Franck Riester told RTL radio.