Paris was in lockdown on Saturday, with the Eiffel Tower and other tourist landmarks shut, as French security forces braced for renewed rioting by “yellow vest” protesters in the capital.
Shops were boarded up to avoid looting and street furniture removed to avoid metal bars from being used as projectiles amid fears of a fourth weekend of violence over living costs.
About 89,000 police were deployed across the country, of which about 8,000 were deployed in Paris to avoid a repeat of last Saturday’s mayhem when rioters torched cars and looted shops off the famed Champs Elysees boulevard.
Protesters, using social media, have billed the weekend as “Act IV” in a dramatic challenge to President Emmanuel Macron and his policies.
“According to the information we have, some radicalised and rebellious people will try to get mobilised tomorrow,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said on Friday. “Some ultra-violent people want to take part.”
In addition to the closure of the Eiffel Tower, many shops and museums across Paris, including the Louvre, the Orsay Museum and the Grand Palais, will be shut on Saturday for safety reasons. Music festivals, operas and other cultural events in the capital were cancelled.
The national Federation of French markets said that Christmas markets have been “strongly impacted” and that its members registered “an average fall of their estimated figures between 30 and 40 percent since the beginning of the yellow vest movement.”
“It’s with an immense sadness that we’ll see our city partially brought to a halt, but your safety is our priority,” said Mayor Anne Hidalgo. “Take care of Paris on Saturday because Paris belongs to all the French people.”
The protests, named after the high-visibility safety jackets French motorists have to keep in their cars, erupted in November over the squeeze on household budgets caused by fuel taxes.
Demonstrations have since swelled into a broad, sometimes-violent rebellion against Mr Macron – a challenge made more difficult to handle since the movement has no formal leader.
Authorities say the protests have been hijacked by far-right and anarchist elements bent on violence and stirring up social unrest in a direct affront to Mr Macron and the security forces.
Nonetheless, the 40-year-old Macron, whose popularity is at a low ebb according to polls, has been forced into making the first major U-turn of his presidency by abandoning a fuel tax.
Despite the climbdown, the “yellow vests” continue to demand more concessions from the government, including lower taxes, higher salaries, cheaper energy costs, better retirement provisions and even Mr Macron’s resignation.
One of them, Eric Drouet, a truck driver, called on protesters to storm into the Elysee presidential palace. An Elysee official has said intelligence suggested some protesters would come to the capital “to vandalise and to kill”.
Mr Macron, who has not spoken in public since he condemned last Saturday’s disturbances while at the G20 summit in Argentina, will address the nation early next week, his office said.
On Friday evening, he visited a group of police in their barracks outside Paris, his office said.
Navigating his biggest crisis since being elected 18 months ago, Mr Macron has left it largely to his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, to deal in public with the turmoil and offer concessions.
But he is under pressure to speak more fully as his administration tries to regain the initiative following three weeks of unrest that are the worst since the 1968 student riots.
In a sign the concessions offered by the government may be starting to weaken support for the movement, two opinion polls showed a decline in popularity for the “yellow vests” on Friday.
The protests were supported by 66 percent of respondents in an Ifop-Fiducial poll for CNews TV, down six percentage points since a previous poll carried out on Dec. 3-4.