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Police crack down as ‘yellow vest’ movement unearths French malaise

Protests continued for a fourth weekend in Paris as a “yellow vest” movement that started as a protest to a new gas tax continued to tap into growing dissatisfaction across the country. Meanwhile, law enforcement is doubling down, having dispatched thousands of officers and made hundreds of arrests. NPR reporter Eleanor Beardsley joins Hari Sreenivasan.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In Paris today, riot police faced off with "yellow vest" protesters for the fourth weekend in a row.

    Police shut down roads to the presidential palace and used tear gas to break up the crowds.

    One hundred and thirty-five people were injured, including 17 police officers, and 1,000 protesters were in custody by nightfall. The protests began in response to a planned fuel tax increase, which French President Emmanuel Macron announced he would suspend earlier this week.

    But the "yellow vests" have added new demands and are now protesting high taxes and the high cost of living.

    For more on today's protests and the growing demands of the "yellow vest" movement, NPR reporter Eleanor Beardsley joins us now via Skype from Paris. Let's start with today. What did you see out on the streets?

  • ELEANOR BEARDSLEY:

    Well, Hari, I was out by the Arc de Triomphe, which we saw fighting around it a lot last week. There was just a lot of policemen out — 8,000 police were on the street. That's double the number of last week. There were armored vehicles and they were prepared for the thousands of protesters to arrive, and it was sort of cat-and-mouse going on. The police would try to push people back down the avenue. There was a lot of tear gas. Then the protesters would try to come back. So this went on most of the day.

    There was not rioting, because all the stores were closed and people had boarded up their windows. All of the ground floors of buildings were completely boarded up with plywood.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We're seeing and you've been reporting on the protests escalating over the past several weeks. Do the people in Paris represent something bigger, the people who are out on the streets? I mean, we're seeing this from a city perspective, but is there a larger discontent in the countryside as well?

  • ELEANOR BEARDSLEY:

    Actually, there were only 31,000 protesters out nationwide today, 8,000 in Paris. That doesn't sound like a lot. But actually what they represent goes very deep. More than 70 percent of the French population support them. A woman told me today, "I can't afford to buy shoes for my sons," and she had brought them out there. And so you feel that it does represent something much bigger than the numbers of people who are actually demonstrating. And another thing it makes you realize is there's just a huge disconnect between being the president, Emmanuel Macron, and these people. Somehow, he has not managed to communicate his message that he wants to lower French unemployment, give them jobs. They say he is the president of the rich who is giving more money to the rich, and everyone out there says, "we are for the environment, we care about the planet, but not on the backs of the poor." They say the rich should be paying more, and we are paying the lion's share.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What do they do? I mean, I suspect that even the protesters do not want the type of violence that they saw over the last couple of weekends. They want to get their point across. And the government is, as you say, taking a lot of steps to sort of preemptively arrest people or take them off the streets.

  • ELEANOR BEARDSLEY:

    You know these national movements that have happened now for four Saturdays in a row, that's not all of it. During the week what happens is, little groups of yellow vest protesters might occupy a roundabout or a traffic circle, or they'll be at a toll road. At first they tried to stop cars to get attention. they don't even have to anymore. You know drivers just go by and honk in support, so then they come and they have a national demonstration in different cities and Paris. And they've gotten violent for various reasons because you have young groups of men … who just love to come, glom onto any protest to give them the chance to lose and fight with police. And so it does get distorted when we're watching these images on TV. Basically the movement is people and it's just so spread out all over the country and they're not always fighting police.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joining us from Paris tonight. Thanks so much.

  • ELEANOR BEARDSLEY:

    You're welcome.

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