Paris on edge as thousands gather for May 1 rallies

08:00 | 02/05/2019
Thousands began rallying for May Day in Paris on Wednesday (May 1), with a heady mix of labour unionists, "yellow vest" demonstrators and hardline troublemakers expected to turn out in a test for France's zero-tolerance policy on protest violence.
paris on edge as thousands gather for may 1 rallies
A French yellow vest protester holds up a banner featuring the faces of top politicians under the slogan: "These are the troublemakers" AFP/Zakaria ABDELKAFI

Authorities have warned that this year's marches could be tense, coming barely a week after leaders of the yellow vest anti-government movement angrily dismissed a package of tax cuts by President Emmanuel Macron.

And with trade unions hoping to raise their profile and thuggish "casseurs" vowing to turn Paris into "the capital of rioting", the government moved to deploy security on an "exceptional scale" throughout the capital.

Officials are bracing for a repeat of last year's violence, when they were caught off guard by some 1,200 trouble-makers who ran amok in Paris, vandalising businesses and clashing with police.

By late morning, thousands could be seen gathering by Montparnasse Tower in the city's south where the main union march will begin at 2:30 pm (1230 GMT), many wearing the hi-visibility jackets that gave their name to the yellow vest protesters.

But as the crowds swelled, scuffles briefly erupted along Montparnasse Boulevard with riot police firing off several rounds of tear gas to disperse demonstrators.

Although demonstrations will take place across the country, the main focus is Paris, where more than 7,400 police and gendarmes have been deployed with orders from Macron to take an "extremely firm stance" if faced with any violence.

Since November, the city has struggled to cope with the weekly yellow vest protests, which have often descended into chaos with a handful of thugs smashing up and torching shops, restaurants and even the city's beloved newspaper stands.

Across the city, streets were barricaded off and shops boarded up their windows in preparation for the worst, with police ordering the closure of all businesses along the route of the main march.

"We are not afraid of the union marches but of the black blocs," local restaurant owner Serge Tafanel told AFP.


Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said several groups on social media had urged protesters to transform Paris into "the capital of rioting", with police gearing up for the arrival of up to 2,000 activists bristling for a fight.

"Based on the information we have, 1,000 to 2,000 radical activists, potentially reinforced by individuals coming from abroad, who could try to spread lawlessness and violence," he told a press conference Tuesday.

Many are anti-capitalist youths, often known as "black blocs", who dress in black and wear face masks.

Nearly 200 motorcycle units have been deployed across the capital to respond quickly to flare-ups of violence, and drones are being used to track protesters' movements.

After nearly six months of yellow vest demonstrations, which have often spiralled into rioting and running battles with police, the security forces are taking no chances.

Castaner said police had already begun carrying out pre-emptive searches of anyone planning to march, a new tactic allowed under a security law passed recently in response to the yellow vest violence.

And from the early hours of Wednesday, several dozen police officers could be seen at the city's main train stations, carrying out bag random searches, AFP journalists said.

By late morning, police said 35 people had been detained for questioning.


Last Thursday, in a major policy speech aimed at calming the yellow vest anger, Macron promised a string of reforms including tax cuts worth five billion euros (US$5.5 billion).

The yellow vests rejected it as too little, too late, pledging to keep up the protests that began in November over rising taxes on fuel and pensions which have since morphed into all-out rebellion.

Although the numbers have steadily fallen, the movement has remained in the headlines, largely over disorder by a handful of violent protesters along the Champs-Elysees.

Following a particularly violent demo in March, the government adopted a "zero-tolerance" approach, passing an "anti-rioter" bill granting greater powers to the security forces, which included making it a criminal offence to wear a mask at a protest.

France's powerful labour unions are also hoping to use the traditional May Day march for workers' rights to raise their profile after finding themselves sidelined for months by the grass-roots yellow vest movement.

Like the yellow vests, the unions were also disappointed by Macron's speech.

"We must be careful not to lose the meaning of this day," warned Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the CGT, one of France's biggest unions.

"It is a day of mobilisation which deserves our full attention after Emmanuel Macron's announcement in which he said: 'I hear you and I'm not changing anything'."


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