French 'yellow vest' protests largely peaceful as Macron wraps up debate

PARIS (Reuters) - Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Paris and other French cities on Saturday for a 21st straight weekend of anti-government “yellow vest” protests, but turnout was sharply lower than last week and the marches were largely peaceful.

Slideshow ( 5 images )

The quieter nature of the demonstrations should be a relief to President Emmanuel Macron, who this week wrapped up two months of nationwide town hall meetings as part of his “grand debate” initiative.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is due on Monday to outline the initial findings that emerged from hours of discussions with local mayors and officials, high-school students, workers, intellectuals as well as 1.9 million online contributions.

Macron, who launched the debate in a bid to calm the protests and determine which policies people want the government to focus on, is due to announce proposals based on the results later this month.

By early evening on Saturday, there were 43 arrests in Paris and also a few clashes with police in Rouen on the margins of otherwise peaceful demonstrations.

Protesters carrying French flags and holding signs calling for referendums tabled by citizens also marched largely without violence in Bordeaux and Lille.

The protests, named after the high-visibility safety jackets worn by demonstrators, began in November as an expression of public anger against fuel tax increases.

The movement soon morphed into a broader backlash against Macron’s government, despite a swift reversal of the tax increases and other hurried measures worth more than 10 billion euros to boost purchasing power for less affluent voters.

Turnout on Saturday was down sharply with 22,300 demonstrators nationwide, according to government estimates, compared with 33,700 a week earlier.

In mid-November nearly 300,000 people had demonstrated across France.

In Paris, two rallies had been authorized, including one from Place de la Republique in the east to La Defense business district in the west. Turnout was 3,500 compared with 4,000 last week.

As in recent weeks, authorities banned protests in potential trouble spots, including the French capital’s Champs Elysees, fearing a repetition of the vandalism seen three weeks earlier.

Editing by Helen Popper and Alexandra Hudson