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Clashes break out as French protesters rage against taxes

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Pedestrians walk amongst extinguished burning material near the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysees in Paris, on Saturday, during a rally by yellow vest protestors against rising oil prices and living costs. FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP

Clashes break out as French protesters rage against taxes

ANTI-GOVERNMENT protesters clashed with French police on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Saturday, leaving the area cloaked in tear gas and smoke from fires on a fresh day of demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron.

Demonstrators wearing the yellow, high-visibility vests that symbolise their movement threw projectiles at police preventing them from moving along the famed shopping avenue, which was decked out in twinkling Christmas lights.

They also built barricades in some spots, and tore down traffic lights and street signs, creating riotous scenes reminiscent of street insurrections in the mid-19th century immortalised in paintings and movies.

Police arrested 130 people, 69 of those in Paris, and 24 people were injured, five of them police officers including one who suffered burns to his groin, the city police department and Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said.

Elsewhere, protesters took over highway toll booths to let traffic pass for free, or held go-slow vehicle processions, underlining one of their core complaints of escalating taxes on car fuel, especially diesel.

Macron, targeted by protesters’ calls that he resign, took to Twitter to thank police.

“Shame” on those who assaulted or intimidated citizens, journalists and politicians, Macron said. “There is no place for violence in the [French] Republic.”

Calm returned to the streets of the capital after midnight on Saturday, with the Champs-Elysees reopening to traffic.

The clean-up operation also got under way as garbage trucks were deployed and workers removed barricades along the famous avenue.

The violence was on a smaller scale than a week ago when the “yellow vest” movement staged its first nationwide protest.

“We’re not here to beat up cops. We came because we want the government to hear us,” said one protest spokeswoman, Laetitia Dewalle, 37, adding that the largely spontaneous movement denounced “violence by pseudo-protesters” on the fringes.

“We have just demonstrated peacefully, and we were tear-gassed,” said Christophe, 49, who travelled from the Isere region in eastern France with his wife to protest in the capital.

The interior ministry counted 106,000 protesters across France on Saturday, with 8,000 in Paris, of whom around 5,000 were on the Champs-Elysees.

That was far less than the national tally of 282,000 in the November 17 protests.

The French government cast blame for the unruly protests on far-right politician Marine Le Pen, claiming she egged them on.

But Le Pen rejected that accusation saying she had “never called for any violence whatsoever” and in turn accused the government of “organising the tension” and seeking to make her a scapegoat.

Rural frustrations

A week ago, two people died and over 750 people, including 136 police officers, were injured in sometimes violent demonstrations that have shone a light on frustrations in many rural areas and small towns of France.

The “yellow vests” hail overwhelmingly from non-urban areas of France. They feel overlooked and penalised by policies they see as being pushed through by elitist politicians in Paris.

Former investment banker Macron was elected on a pledge to put more money in workers’ pockets. But the effects of his pro-business reforms on unemployment and purchasing power have been limited so far.

Many of the often low-income “yellow vest” protesters are particularly incensed at his decision to hike anti-pollution taxes on diesel, while scrapping a wealth tax on the rich.

“I’m not just fighting against the price of fuel. It’s about tax, what we pay,” said protester Catherine Marguier in northwest France.

Meanwhile, in a separate protest in Marseille, police fired teargas at bottle-throwing demonstrators upset by the “gentrification” renovation work on the town’s biggest square.

Revolts against taxes have been a feature of French public life for centuries. Citizens still pay some of the highest in Europe as a percentage of GDP, and fuel-price protests are a common modern occurrence.

Previous rounds pitting the government against drivers took place in 1995, 2000, 2004, and 2008, often when tax increases coincided with high oil prices – as they have this year.

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