French security forces sealed off areas of central Paris on Saturday to contain and control gilets jaunes protesters and prevent a repeat of clashes, violence and burning cars and buildings.
Well before sunrise they deployed armoured vehicles at possible flashpoints including Place de la Bastille and the Arc de Triomphe.
Officials said it was a “high-risk” day and appealed for protesters to stay at home.
To avoid a repeat of shocking scenes of cars burning and the smashing and looting shops by fringe elements of the movement, police and gendarmes blocked off areas of central Paris, including roads around the Elysée palace. Officers searched bags and backpacks confiscating masks used as protection from teargas, helmets and anything that could be used as a projectile.
By 10am local time, police, who had been carrying out a stop-and-search operation around the capital, said they had made nearly 400 “preventative arrests”.
A group of gilets jaunes has blocked the péripherique, the ring road around Paris, west of the city.
The first use of teargas came just before 10.30am as police cleared protesters, who had been shouting slogans against the president, Emmanuel Macron, and singing the Marseillaise, from a side street and pushed them back on to the Champs-Elysées.
Elsewhere, Paris was eerily quiet for a Saturday in December, one of the busiest days of the year for shopkeepers. Instead many stores were shut and boarded up. Some without metal shutters or boarding, put high visibility vests in their window in a show of support and the hope of sparing them from destruction.
A group of gilets jaunes from the Auvergne had come up overnight, making the five-and-a-half hour journey by coach.
“We’re here because we’re fed up. Everyone’s fed up. The politicians ask us to make sacrifices while they do nothing,” said one.
“Don’t mix us up with the casseurs (smashers and looters); they are nothing to do with the gilets jaunes and we’re not here for that.”
Mistrust of the police and gendarmes was high, particularly groups of plain-clothed officers with orange armbands.
“We know that police have put on yellow vests and smashed things up just to give the gilets jaunes a bad image,” said one of the Auvergne protesters.
How did he know? “I saw it on the internet. They were definitely police.”
A government official said 89,000 police and gendarmes would be mobilised across the country, 8,000 of them in the capital, alongside a dozen VBRG armoured vehicles.
“We are facing people who are not there to demonstrate but are there to smash things up and we want to make sure we’re not leaving them to do what they want,” said the prime minister, Édouard Philippe, attempting to justify the use of the VBRG, which are capable of firing teargas grenades and clearing barricades and are rarely used in city areas.
Paris went into lockdown on Friday as the city prepared for a fourth weekend of protests. There was a sense of impending attack in the city centre as banks, shops, restaurants and businesses rushed to board up windows to protect their premises from looters.
At Place de la Bastille, which has been undergoing pedestrianisation, workers cleared away metal and concrete barriers and carried off anything that could be thrown. The windows of the Banque de France were being boarded up on Friday morning. Staff at the Bastille Opéra were reported to have locked the orchestra’s instruments somewhere safe fearing an assault on the building.
Parisiens, even those far from the Champs Élysées, Arc de Triomphe and Place de la Concorde – the scenes of violent clashes in previous weeks – were advised not to leave dustbins on the streets for fear they could be set alight.
Last Saturday the city saw the worst street unrest in 50 years as groups of casseurs (hooligans) confronted riot police, torched vehicles and looted shops.
On Saturday, the chic Parisien department stores – Galeries Lafayette, Printemps and BHV – were boarded up and closed on what is normally one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Galeries Lafayette’s celebrated Christmas lights and window animations were turned off and covered.
Police launched an internal inquiry after discovering part of Saturday’s emergency security plan had been leaked and published online.
The Eiffel Tower and Louvre museum were closed along with a dozen other museums and the opera houses, which cancelled performances. In Bordeaux, a dozen public buildings will be closed. Six Ligue 1 football matches have been cancelled.
The gilet jaunes movement started as a protest against a proposed rise in diesel and petrol tax, and takes its name from the yellow high-vis jackets that all motorists must by law carry in their cars. It quickly expanded into a wider anti-government movement with a list of diverse demands, many associated with living standards.
The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, their anger directed at a president perceived as aloof and out of touch and a government seen to represent a political elite that has no idea how la France d’en bas – the less well-off – live.
Outside of the capital, tax offices have been boarded up, though the association of rural mayors has asked local councillors to keep town halls open to allow “each citizen to verbally express their anger”.
Ministers have repeated calls for calm and asked protesters to stay away from the capital, as have union leaders, opposition parties and Roman Catholic clergy.
On Friday French media reported that the president, Emmanuel Macron, had refused a demand to meet “moderate” gilets jaunes at the Elysée.
Benjamin Cauchy, an unofficial spokesman, said representatives of the movement had asked to see the president because “insurrection is at the gates of France and we don’t want any deaths this weekend”. The Elysée responded that the prime minister’s door “remained open”.
Macron has been silent since Wednesday evening when he performed a surprising volte-face on the fuel tax, announcing it was being cancelled, hours after Philippe had told the Assemblée Nationale it was being frozen and “might” be abandoned.
French media quoted officials as saying the president was anxious not to inflame the situation by addressing the country before Saturday’s demonstrations. He is expected to give a televised address at the beginning of next week.
Efforts to prepare for what gilets jaunes demonstrators are calling Act IV of their action is hampered by the grassroots movement having no formal organisation or leadership, posing a unique challenge for the French authorities.
Speaking to gilets jaunes protesters, a recurring theme is the feeling that France’s leaders hold them in contempt. Attempts by the Élysée and government to calm the crisis, including dropping the fuel tax and pledging to review the complex tax system, have done little to appease protesters.
The insurrection is being further fuelled on social media by conspiracy theories and fake news, including widely spread but false claims that Macron is “selling France” to the United Nations, World Bank or other international organisations planning to let millions of migrants take over France. The reports have been viewed several million times.
The French government has also deployed police to deal with high school student protests. A video showing police forcing students to kneel in rows with their arms behind their backs has caused shock and further criticism of the government.
The education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, said the images had to be seen in the context of police responding to student violence. “There are shocking images because we are in a climate of exceptional violence,” Blanquer said.