Paris police fired teargas and issued hundreds of fines on Saturday to break up a convoy of vehicles that attempted to block traffic in a protest over Covid restrictions and rising living costs.
Inspired by the truckers that shut down the Canadian capital Ottawa, thousands of demonstrators from across France made their way to Paris in a self-proclaimed “freedom convoy” of cars, trucks and vans.
The police, which had banned the protest, moved quickly to try to clear the cars at entry points to the city, handing out 283 fines for participation in an unauthorised protest.
But over 100 vehicles managed to converge on the famous Champs-Elysees avenue, where police used teargas to disperse protesters in scenes reminiscent of the “yellow vest” anti-government riots of 2018-2019.
The demonstrators oppose the Covid vaccine pass required to access many public venues but some also took aim at rising energy and food prices, issues which ignited the “yellow vest” protests that shook France in late 2018 and early 2019.
Aurelie M, a 42-year-old administrative assistant in a Parisian company, complained that the health pass meant she could no longer take a long-distance TGV train even if she tested negative for Covid in a home test.
“There’s so much inconsistency and unfairness,” she told AFP, noting that commuters could still cram onto a crowded Paris metro without proof of vaccination.
Sixty-five-year-old factory worker Jean-Paul Lavigne said he travelled across the country from the southwestern town of Albi to protest fuel, food and electricity price hikes as well as the pressure on people to get vaccinated.
The demonstrations come two months ahead of presidential elections, in which President Emmanuel Macron is expected to seek re-election.
On Friday, the centrist French leader, who is a figure of hate for the far left, said he understood the “fatigue” linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘Fatigue leads to anger’
“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.
Nearly 7,200 officers equipped with armoured vehicles and water cannon were deployed to keep the peace in Paris.
Police showed off their arsenal on Twitter, publishing photographs of loader tractors for the removal of barricades.
The convoys set out from Nice in the south, Lille and Vimy in the north, Strasbourg in the east and Chateaubourg in the west.
‘It’s a betrayal’
They are demanding the withdrawal of the government’s vaccine pass 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 travelling in the Chateaubourg convoy, who did not want to give her surname.
Paris police banned the gathering saying it posed a threat to public order 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 prime minister defended the clampdown.
“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,” he said.
From Paris, some of the protesters plan 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.