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Yellow Vest leader out of custody, denies organising demonstration

media Eric Drouet, a leader of the Yellow Vests movement, next to his lawyer Kheops Lara (R) as he leaves Paris' courthouse after being detained by the police during a demonstration in Paris, Dec. 23, 2018. FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP

Eric Drouet, one of the leaders of the Yellow Vests movement was released on custody Thursday without charge, hours after being arrested for organising an unofficial protest in Paris. His arrest sparked criticism from MPs across the political spectrum.

"Everything that is taking place here is politics," Drouet told BFM TV, shortly after his release on custody Thursday.

Hours beforehand, he was arrested on his way to meet friends outside a McDonalds restaurant near the Arc de Triomphe war monument.

The arrest, criticized by his lawyers as 'heavy-handed', immediately sparked outrage on social media.

Radical leftist leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, a fierce critic of President Emmanuel Macron, tweeted: "Again Eric Drouet arrested, why? Abuse of power. A politicized police targeting and harassing the leaders of the yellow vest movement."

The 33-year-old truck driver was taken into custody on Wednesday night for a Facebook post he wrote calling on Yellow Vest protesters to organize a new demonstration that would "shock public opinion".

"It wasn't a call for a demonstration," he insists, denying accusations that he had called for a rally on the Champs-Elysees Wednesday evening while failing to inform authorities in advance of the protest.

Under French law, protest organisers are required to inform authorities of the location at least three days in advance, but Yellow Vests have routinely flouted this since their often spontaneous demonstrations began in late November.

"When somebody organises a demonstration that has not been authorized, it means they do not respect the rule of law," Bruno Le Maire, France's Economy minister told France Inter radio, defending the arrest.

Yellow Vests galvanized after arrest

Drouet--who already faces a trial for carrying a weapon during a previous protest-- insists he was on his way to lay candles in central Paris in tribute to the ten Yellow Vest protesters killed since the start of the grassroots movement.

"I wasn't wearing a yellow vest, just walking on the pavement," he said, calling the arrest "incomprehensible".

"I'm not the Yellow Vests' representative. With or without me, it will continue", he said, speaking of the protests.

News of his arrest appeared to galvanize Yellow Vest protesters amid signs their eight-week movement is on the wane.

"Drouet was arrested for no reason," comments Fabrice, a 46-year-old Yellow Vest protester from Lyon.

"We will not give up, the Yellow Vests will continue," he told AFP.

Protesters say they were irked by President Macron's New Year's Eve televised address, viewed as an "act of war." They are plannning further demonstrations this Saturday.

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