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Europe

Sporadic clashes as diminished Yellow Vest protests take place across France

media Protesters wearing yellow vests attend a demonstration during the traditional May Day labour day in Paris Protesters wearing yellow vests attend a demonstration during the traditional May Day labour day in Paris, France, May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Major Yellow Vest protests have been planned in the French cities of Nantes and Lyon on Saturday, as the movement seeks to rebuild momentum after last weekend’s record low turnout.

Updated 17:16, May 11th: 

 Yellow Vest protesters gathered in Paris and other French cities Saturday for the 26th straight week of rallies against President Emmanuel Macron, with scattered incidents of violence but overall a marked decline in the size of the crowds.

Several hundred people began marching near the Jussieu university in the centre of the capital, chosen to show solidarity with teachers who went on strike this week against an education reform project.

"It's going to be a day in support of parents, families and everyone in the education system," Jean-Christophe Valentin, a city hall worker at the rally, told AFP.

With protests outlawed on the Champs-Elysees and a large part of central Paris, organisers had called for "national" rallies in the cities of Lyon and Nantes.

Around 2,000 to 3,000 people turned out in both cities, accodring to estimates by the French news agency AFP, confirming the decline in attendance since the protests began in November, when it hit a high of 282,000 across France.

The interior ministry, for its part, estimated just 2,700 protesters had turned out across France as of 2:00 pm (1200 GMT), including 600 in Paris, compared with 3,600 counted at the same time last Saturday.

Tensions flared in Nantes when police charged a group of people throwing rocks and other objects, with at least one person evacuated by "street medics" among the protesters.

Officials had said they were expecting up to 500 far-left agitators in the city near France's western Atlantic coast, rekindling fears of fresh violence by so-called "black blocs".

In both Lyon and Nantes, police used tear gas to disperse crowds as some masked protesters attempted to build makeshift barricades.

 

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The 26th consecutive weekend of demonstrations comes just two weeks before this month’s critical European parliamentary elections.

Yet nearly six months after the movement first began, support for the Yellow Vests appears to be dwindling. Last week’s demonstrations drew less than 19,000 people nationwide, according to the French Interior Ministry – a number that has been contested by protesters as too low.

Yellow Vests hope that by staging large rallies in other major cities, they will be attracting supporters who don’t have the time, resources or inclination to travel to Paris every weekend.

“There’s a sort of fatigue and fear because of the police violence. There is also a financial aspect: it’s expensive to protest in Paris … but (the movement) could take off again from nothing,” Thierry Boirivant, a 44-year-old accountant and self-avowed Yellow Vest, told AFP on a highway outside of Lyon.

Boirivant said that French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent concessions following a months-long “grand debate” on national policy – which was launched in response to the ongoing Yellow Vest protests – failed to address the movement’s demands. His views were shared by another protester, David L. (who did not give a last name), in Nantes.

“People are exhausted, they’re sick of it. Deep down, we want to stop, but we also want something powerful and concrete to happen before summer,” the 41-year-old told French news agency AFP.

Earlier this month, members of the Yellow Vest movement announced they were fielding a list in the upcoming European parliamentary elections on May 26. But it is expected to garner no more than 2 percent of the vote, according to a recent poll by Elabe for BFMTV.

In preparation for Saturday’s protest, police in Lyon have blocked off four additional shopping areas. Authorities in Nantes have limited access to the city’s centre.

Protests will still be held in Paris, where police have cordoned off the famous Champs-Élysées avenue, the National Assembly and the area surrounding Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Demonstrations have also been planned in the French cities of Lille, Dijon, Toulouse and Strasbourg.

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