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Macron battles to end controversy over use of army against 'yellow vests'

File photo of French President Emmanuel Macron. Photograph:( AFP )

AFP Paris, France Mar 23, 2019, 07.44 AM (IST)

French President Emmanuel Macron attempted on Friday to defuse the controversy triggered by his decision to deploy the army as a backup during this weekend's "yellow vest" protests following major riots in Paris a week ago.

Under pressure to prevent a repeat of last weekend's violence on the Champs-Elysees where some 100 shops were torched, looted or damaged, the government announced this week that it would redeploy soldiers from its anti-terrorism force to guard public buildings during the latest round of demonstrations.

To try to prevent any confrontation the authorities also banned the "yellow vests" from gathering in the centre of several flashpoint cities on Saturday.

The move to deploy the military -- aimed at freeing up the police to tackle the anarchists who have infiltrated the movement for greater equality -- drew howls of protest from the opposition, who warned that fielding soldiers against protesters was fraught with risk.

Pressed on the issue in Brussels Friday, where he was attending an EU summit, Macron stressed that the army would "in no way be involved in maintaining law and order".

He pointed out that the Sentinelle anti-terrorism force, which has been patrolling French cities against jihadists since 2015, had already been guarding sensitive sites, such as train stations and places of worship.

The controversy, he said, was being whipped up by "those who play at scaring themselves and scaring others".

But remarks by the military governor of Paris did little to allay the concerns of those worried about the army stepping up.

Speaking on France Info public radio, General Bruno Le Ray said that the soldiers would be entitled to open fire after giving warning shots if "their lives or those of people they are protecting is in jeopardy.

But their orders would be "sufficiently clear for the soldiers not to have to worry" about making that decision, Le Ray assured.

The "yellow vest" ban on Saturday includes the Champs-Elysees in Paris, where hundreds of black-clad demonstrators -- a minority among the 10,000-strong crowd -- ran amok last weekend.

Similar bans have also been ordered in Toulouse and Bordeaux, in southwestern France, and much of the southern city of Nice where Chinese President Xi Jinping is due to meet Macron on Sunday.

'Zero tolerance'

Macron's government drew fierce criticism over its handling of last week's riots, with the police appearing to hang back after being accused of using excessive force during previous such protests over the last four months.

The Paris police chief was fired over the violence. 

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has ordered his replacement to adopt a "zero tolerance" approach.

On Friday, clean-up operations continued on the Champs-Elysees where shops again battened down the hatches lest demonstrators defy Saturday's protest ban.

A Swarovski crystal store, which was ransacked last week, was being fitted with new windows, and five domed-roof news kiosks that were torched last week have already been replaced.

Sylvain, the team leader of a kiosk repair crew who did not wish to give his full name, backed the use of the army to help restore order.

"Either they do that, or Macron resigns."

"He needs to show the world that the government has a handle on the country and on the capital," he said.

Dwindling public support

The Saturday protests began in rural France on November 17 over fuel tax increases and quickly ballooned into a full-scale anti-government rebellion.

But as time goes on the protesters numbers have dwindled, falling from 282,000 nationwide on the first Saturday to just 32,000 according to last week's police estimates.

Those still on the streets appear more determined than ever to make their presence felt.

The damage caused during the riots rose to 200 million euros ($227 million) last weekend, according to Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire.

Public support for the "yellow vests", who want higher taxes on the rich and a greater say for ordinary people in the running of the country, has fallen, according to a poll published Wednesday.

Story highlights

Under pressure to prevent a repeat of last weekend's violence on the Champs-Elysees, the government announced this week that it would redeploy soldiers from its anti-terrorism force to guard public buildings during the latest round of demonstrations.