Police Fire Tear Gas, Water Cannons at Paris Fuel-Tax Crowds

(Bloomberg) -- Police used tear gas and water cannons to control thousands of protesters on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, some of whom were setting fires, as a week-long series of demonstrations against higher gasoline taxes converged on the French capital.

Among the protesters were members of far-right political movements who confronted riot police, according to Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. Police kept demonstrators away from French President Emmanuel Macron’s office and residence.

The social-media-driven movement, which branded itself “gilets jaunes” -- after the yellow safety vests drivers need to keep in their cars -- began a week ago, when almost 300,000 protesters threw up some 2,000 roadblocks. The protests are knitting together disparate groups united not just by their opposition to gas taxes, but anger at the president himself. Their complaints range from vanishing local services to the abolition of a wealth tax to the rising cost of living.

“It’s just taxes, taxes, taxes,” said Marianne, 51, who declined to provide her last name because she works for a local government near Paris. “Everything is expensive. We can’t get to the end of the month. This goes way beyond just diesel.”

Authorities had made a downtown park available for Saturday’s demonstration. Instead, protesters headed mainly to Avenue des Champs-Elysees, Paris’s most famous street. There were about 8,000 protesters in the city, Castaner said. The national turnout was about 106,000, significantly lower than on the previous Saturday, he added.

“There were two types of demonstrators today,” Castaner said distinguishing between protesters looking to send a message and what he termed members of far-right groups who deliberately attacked riot police.

Demonstrator Barricades

Over the course of several hours, demonstrators set up multiple barricades on the avenue, lit fires, and dug out cobblestones to use as projectiles. The majority of protesters moved on and off the Champs-Elysees, retreating from the smoke or tear gas and returning when riot police pulled back.

The government’s response to roll back the tax plan has so far been ineffective. Offers of aid for cleaner vehicles and home-heating systems haven’t calmed the protesters, and Macron’s administration has refused to back down from a tax plan that’s aimed at reducing fuel consumption and cutting harmful emissions.

On Tuesday, the government is scheduled to make policy announcements to try to address the issue.

More than three-quarters of the public support the protesters, according to polls. The standoff has pitted Macron’s mostly urban supporters -- many of whom don’t rely on cars -- against France’s rural and small town populations, who do.

The government raised diesel and gasoline taxes at the start of this year, and a further increase is scheduled for 2019. Taxes account for about 60 percent of the price at the pump.

Macron, in a tweet, thanked the police for their courage and said, “shame on those who attacked them.”

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