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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

'Yellow vests' protests leave France shattered and divided

President Emmanuel Macron has staked his political identity on holding his nerve as the demonstrations wear on, but protesters are not backing down

Cars burn as protesters clash with riot police near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. EPA
Cars burn as protesters clash with riot police near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. EPA

The French capital can’t endure “a third weekend of chaos” after an estimated 136,000 protesters clashed with police, Valerie Pecresse, the president of the greater Paris region, said on Monday.

But while the “gilets jaunes” – or “yellow vests”, after the fluorescent street jackets that drivers must carry in their vehicles – take the capital hostage, French President Emmanuel Macron shows little willingness to back down either.

Mr Macron, who in the course of 18 months has fallen from being the embodiment of a modern France to being derided as the “president of the rich”, has staked his political identity on never giving in to the streets.

As recently as 2013, a similar group – the “bonnets rouges” (or “red hats”) – made socialist president Francois Hollande backtrack on an eco-tax on heavy vehicles, and Mr Macron is determined not to join the ranks of his predecessors who have had their public policies overturned by street protests.

But coming between motorists and their vehicles never boded well for a French president. The “gilets jaunes”, many of whom come from France’s poor rural regions, have risen in protests over the tax, which they say has made it impossible for them to financially reach the end of the month.

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Read more:

Macron calls crisis meeting as 'yellow vest' unrest spreads across France

Demonstrations have a long history in the West – but are self-defeating when posing a threat to ordered society

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So far the clashes have led to three deaths – including that of an elderly woman injured by a tear-gas canister in her apartment – the defacing of some of France’s iconic historic sites and the splintering of French society, including within Mr Macron’s own party.

At a party meeting on Saturday, the representatives of La Republique en Marche (LREM), split along two lines: the hardliners who push for the continuation of Mr Macron’s tough stance and those who advocate for defusing tensions and reaching a compromise.

Discord also seeps among the bearers of the “yellow vests”. Jacline Mouraud, one of the representatives of the movement, received death threats and has asked for police protection to attend the coming meeting with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.

“These threats are the making of the hard-line fringe of the 'gilets jaunes' movement, of anarchists who want France to remain into chaos,” Mrs Mouraud told French newspaper Le Figaro. She added that if she does not receive police protection she will not be able to attend a meeting with Mr Philippe on Tuesday.

The growing phenomenon of “fake news” is also playing its part in inflaming spirits. Images of injured protesters that received more than 140,000 shares and riled French society against police brutality have later been found to be old images of protests in Spain.

Fake rumours of police officers damaging iconic monuments disguised as protesters have also done the rounds on social media.

Officials estimated between 1,500 and 3,000 people infiltrated the Paris protest intent on causing destruction and attacking police.

Mr Macron has postponed a planned visit to Belgrade because of “problems” at home, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Monday.

“We were preparing for President Macron’s visit. Unfortunately, because of the situation and the problems he faces, president Macron asked me to postpone his visit to our country for a few weeks,” Mr Vucic said in a televised press conference

Mr Macron would have been the first French head of state to visit Serbia since Jacques Chirac in 2001. He was scheduled to meet Mr Vucic on Wednesday evening and pay tribute to a cemetery for fallen First World War soldiers on Thursday, before returning to Paris.

Mr Philippe earlier cancelled a scheduled trip to Poland.