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France's 'yellow vests' march largely without violence as tensions ease

PARIS (Reuters) - Turnout for a 16th round of “yellow vest” protests in France on Saturday was below last week’s levels and marches were largely peaceful, in a relief for President Emmanuel Macron who has struggled to find a response to the movement.

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While turnout figures at midday were only half of last week, by nightfall the Interior Ministry counted a total of 39,300 protesters nationwide, of which 4,000 were in Paris.

Last Saturday there had been 46,600 marchers, including 5,800 in Paris, compared with 41,000 the week before and 51,400 the week before that - well down on the more than 300,000 who marched at the start of the movement in November in a protest which degenerated into clashes with police in subsequent weeks.

Protesters marched largely peacefully on Saturday from the Arc de Triomphe to Place Denfert-Rochereau on the residential left bank, though water cannon were briefly used to douse protesters on the Champs Elysees boulevard.

Tear gas and water cannon were also used in Bordeaux, and in Toulouse, where some protesters marched behind a “cacatov party” banner - a play on Molotov cocktail firebombs - encouraging people to throw “poo-bombs” at police.

There were no reports of anyone being hit by a “catatov”, but the threat of excrement projectiles was of concern to reporters covering the marches in Toulouse and Paris.

Large parts of central Paris were in lockdown as thousands of police cordoned off key areas around the presidential palace and government buildings.

“Stop this violence ... the place to express your view in a democratic way is at the debates,” Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud told LCI television, referring to government-organized nationwide debates where citizens can express their views.

The relative lack of violence in the latest marches is a boost for Macron’s centrist government, which has struggled to respond to a diffuse and largely leaderless movement that started as a protest against high fuel prices but has morphed into a broad anti-government protest.

After boosting government support for low-income workers by some 10 billion euros ($11.4 billion) at the start of the year and starting a series on marathon debates with local representatives, Macron’s approval ratings have gradually recovered in recent weeks.

Last week, an Odoxa poll showed the percentage of people who consider Macron a good president rose to 32 percent, back to where it was when the protests started and off a low of 27 percent in mid-December as protesters rampaged through central Paris and other cities.

Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Johanna Decorse in Toulouse and Catherine Lagrange in Lyon, and Claude Canellas in Bordeaux; Editing by David Holmes