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Teargas, clashes in Paris as Yellow Vests' protesters defy coronavirus ban

PARIS (Reuters) - French security forces fired teargas and clashed with anti-government “Yellow Vest” protesters who were demonstrating in Paris on Saturday in defiance of a ban on mass gatherings that aims to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

In a televised address to the nation on Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron announced school closures and urged people to avoid close contact for fear of propagating the virus that has killed 79 people in France and infected more than 3,600.

The government on Friday banned all gatherings of more than 100 people. Paris police had already turned down requests for protesters to convene at sensitive sites, including the Champs Elysees where there were violent clashes between security forces and protesters almost a year ago to the day.

“It’s Saturday, demonstration day. Some people think that the coronavirus won’t touch them and refuse to respect the advice,” said a riot police officer in front of a heavily armed vehicle blocking the road that leads to the presidential palace.

Central Paris had earlier been in lockdown, with police searching bags over concerns the protesters would seek to return to the Champs Elysees. The police cordon had been eased by lunchtime.

Hundreds of protesters, some wearing protective medical masks, had marched early on Saturday from Montparnasse train station, chanting anti-Macron slogans. By mid-afternoon, tension had grown.

A police source put the numbers at about 400.

Riot police used teargas and stun grenades in attempts to disperse the crowds and clashed with individuals as about 2,000 security forces were deployed across the city to manage the situation.

“The security forces are currently pushing back a portion of the cortege composed of determined individuals, who are trying to continue in a direction that has not been declared,” the Paris police said on Twitter, adding that 25 people had been arrested.

The protesters, named after the high-visibility jackets they wear, were holding a 70th consecutive Saturday of action. The movement emerged late in 2018, triggered by fuel tax rises, and swelled into a revolt against Macron’s government.

While protests are now much smaller, anger at Macron’s government remains and Saturday’s demonstration served as a remainder to the president a day before local elections.

Sunday’s vote is an important test for Macron, with opponents now particularly angered by his plans to reform the French pensions system. His party is not expected to do well.

“We had to come and mark the day to tell Macron that we’re still here and that we won’t accept his pension reform,” said one pensioner.

Voters will begin choosing mayors for 35,000 town halls and almost half a million councillors on Sunday in elections overshadowed by the coronavirus outbreak, which is expected to hit turnout.

Macron decided to go ahead with the elections despite concerns over the spread of the illness, which have led the government to shut schools and universities, suspend major sporting events, curtail public transport and close tourism attractions.

Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Kirsten Donovan, Frances Kerry, William Maclean

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