French police brace for ninth 'yellow vest' weekend protests

More than 5,000 police officers are expected to be on the streets of the French capital on Saturday to monitor the ninth weekend of street protests by the 'gilets jaunes' (yellow vests) movement.

Nationwide, national police chief Eric Morvan told France Inter radio that he expected turnout to be similar to protests in mid-December, when more than 60,000 took to the streets across the country.

The protests, named after the high-visibility jackets French drivers carry in their cars, have repeatedly witnessed clashes between demonstrators and police since they began in November in response to a fuel tax hike.

A small town in France

The town of Bourges in central France became the center of attention before the weekend kicked off after one of the yellow vest organizers told followers on Facebook the town was easy to reach and had a small police presence. By Friday evening, 3,000 people had indicated that they would be heading for Bourges, with a further 13,000 saying they were interested.

Prefect Catherine Ferrier banned gatherings in the town center in response. "It has nothing to do with previous peaceful marches that took place in the city of Bourges," Ferrier stated.

Bourges' mayor, Pascal Blanc, has ordered traffic be restricted in the city center and the city hall and museums to be closed on Saturday.

Warning against violence

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner warned peaceful protesters that they would be "complicit" if they attended marches that turned violent.

New laws, including a register of rioters similar to those used to control football hooligans, are being planned.

However, without a central leadership or decision-making body, protesters might not concentrate in Bourges. Last month, a protest apparently planned for Versailles was quickly relocated to central Paris.

Call for public debate

Meanwhile, President Macron's "great national debate" of town hall meetings is scheduled to start on Tuesday. Macron suggested the idea as a solution to complaints that citizens lack a say in debating and setting the political agenda.

Ecological transition, public finances, democracy, and the state’s organization are intended to be the main themes of the consultations and, in a practice dating back to before the French Revolution, "grievance notebooks" have been placed in town halls for citizens to make complaints or suggestions.

But the initiative has already run into trouble after it was reported that the head of the national debates commission, Chantal Jouanno, was being paid €14,666 ($16,820) per month. She withdrew her participation, leaving the government to reorganize the discussions.

The outlook for the debates appears dim, with polling suggesting many people uninterested in taking part in the town hall meetings or skeptical of how useful they will be.

Since November, protesters' grievances have broadened beyond the fuel tax increase, which Macron eventually cancelled, to include the president's alleged elitism and precarious living standards for many people across the country.

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