Police fired tear gas at demonstrators on the Champs-Élysées avenue in Paris on Saturday shortly after a “Freedom Convoy” protesting against Covid-19 restrictions made it into the French capital.
Cars carrying protesters managed to get through police blockades in central Paris to snarl traffic around the Arc de Triomphe monument.
Reporting from the Champs-Élysées, FRANCE 24’s Catherine Norris-Trent said the situation turned tense shortly after lunchtime. “There are numerous police vehicles here and cars from the so-called “Freedom Convoy” – protesters who, despite the ban, have driven into Paris and they’re blocking this roundabout. Police have been trying to clear them out, they’ve been asking people to clear the scene and there have been scuffles here,” she said.
Earlier Saturday, police said they stopped 500 vehicles at three entry points into the French capital and nearly 300 tickets were handed out by mid-morning.
The vehicles were intercepted at three entry points into Paris and nearly 300 tickets were handed out by mid-morning, police said on Twitter.
Police have mobilised thousands of officers, set up checkpoints and deployed armoured personnel carriers and water cannon trucks in preparation for the protests.
At least two protesters were arrested in southern Paris in possession of petrol cans, hammers and knives, according to the police.
Inspired by horn-blaring “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations in Canada, the motorists – from numerous cities across France – camped on the outskirts of the city overnight Friday, determined to defy a police order not to enter the city.
The Canada protests, which started in the national capital Ottawa, entered their 16th day on Saturday as police began clearing the Ambassador Bridge, linking the USA to Canada.
In France, the “Freedom Convoy” protesters include those who are opposed to the vaccine as well as opponents of French President Emmanuel Macron and the government’s policies in general who say they are “furious for not being able to demonstrate,” said Norris-Trent.
“French authorities say demonstrations are one thing, but blocking traffic in the capital is another. Clearly the French authorities are very keen to try and avoid a Canada style scenario, where the streets of the capital have been clogged up for weeks,” explained Norris-Trent.
Cat-and-mouse game to dodge police checks
Less than two months before the first round of the 2022 presidential election, Macron’s government is also eager to keep protests from spiralling into large-scale demonstrations like the anti-government “Yellow Vest” protests of 2018.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex vowed to remain steadfast.
“If they block traffic or if they try to block the capital, we must be very firm about this,” he insisted on France 2 television channel on Friday.
At the Porte Maillot entrance to Paris earlier Saturday, several dozen police officers were tasked with systematically stopping vehicles and caravans to carry out checks.
Coming from the southern French city of Perpignan, Sarah* and a friend assured FRANCE 24 that they were going to Paris “just to see family. We have nothing to do with the Freedom Convoy,” explained the occupants of the camper, which sported a poster of Dr. Luc Montagnet, an anti-vax conspiracy figure, on the dashboard.
“Let’s start again: you came to attend a banned demonstration,” asserted a policeman, unconvinced by the confused explanations of the young woman to justify her presence in the capital.
Protesters are demanding a withdrawal of the government’s vaccine pass, which is required for access to many public spaces, and more help with their energy bills.
“People need to see us, and to listen to the people who just want to live a normal and free life,” said Lisa, a 62-year-old retired health worker who joined a convoy of more than 1,000 vehicles leaving Chateaubourg in the western Brittany region early Friday.
On social networks, calls to “hide the flags” and “to find an alibi to enter Paris” were shared to dodge the police blocks in a cat-and-mouse game that lasted until early afternoon.
Like other protesters, Lisa has been active in the Yellow Vest movement that erupted over a fuel tax hike before becoming a platform for other complaints against President Emmanuel Macron.
Just two months ahead of presidential elections and with the government desperate to avoid violent scenes in the capital, Macron said Friday he understood the “fatigue” linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This fatigue also leads to anger. I understand it and I respect it. But I call for the utmost calm,” he told the Ouest-France newspaper.
‘It’s a betrayal’
Police estimated 3,300 vehicles were involved in the various convoys by Friday afternoon.
Paris police banned the gathering because of feared “public order disturbances” and said protesters who tried to block roads would face fines or arrest.
The order prohibiting the assembly of convoys was upheld on Friday by the courts, which rejected two appeals.
“It’s a betrayal. The basis of the order is not respectful of the law, of the freedom to demonstrate,” anti-vaccine and Yellow Vest activist Sophie Tissier told AFP.
“The right to demonstrate and to have an opinion are a constitutionally guaranteed right in our republic and in our democracy. The right to block others or to prevent coming and going is not,” the prime minister said.
Refuting any desire to block the capital, the demonstrators were hoping to swell the ranks of the regular Saturday protests against the government’s vaccine pass.
“It’s important that we don’t interfere with other people on the roads,” said one activist, Robin, on his way from Illkirch-Graffenstaden in the eastern Alsace region. “That way we’ll keep the population on our side, like they did in Canada.”
Some then want to travel on to Brussels for a “European convergence” of protesters planned there for Monday.
Phil, a 58-year-old on his way by truck from Brittany, said his refusal to get vaccinated had created “upheaval” in his family and work relations.
“When you join a demonstration you feel less alone,” he told AFP.
The government has expressed some sympathy for the protesters, with spokesman Gabriel Attal attributing their anger to “fatigue and weariness” after long-lasting Covid restrictions.
The government also announced Friday a further easing of Covid rules.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)