More than 10,000 people wearing red scarves marched through Paris on Sunday in protest at “yellow vest” violence during the anti-government demos that have drawn tens of thousands of people to the streets over the past 11 weeks.
Since mid-November President Emmanuel Macron has offered concessions and debates seeking to quell the weekly rallies that often end in violent clashes with police in the most serious challenge yet to his government.
In Sunday’s rival protest, the crowds marched in rain from the Place de la Nation square to the Bastille monument, some chanting “Yes to democracy, no to revolution” as they waved French and European Union flags.
Dubbed the “red scarf” movement, the centrist initiative is the brainchild of an engineer from Toulouse who was horrified by the violence seen among more extremist “yellow vest” demonstrators.
Many protesters joining the rally said they were not against “yellow vest” demands for greater help for France’s poor, but were sick of the clashes and destruction that have marked protests for 11 consecutive Saturdays since mid-November.
Laurent Soulie, an organiser of the march, said the protesters responded to a call to the “silent majority who have remained holed up at home for 10 weeks.”
A nursing manager who gave her name as Marie-Line said she believed the yellow vests had just cause to “grumble”, but came “to say that this verbal and physical violence must stop”.
“It’s not a protest against the yellow vests — it’s a protest to say, you’ve made your demands, we are listening to them,” Francois Patriat, a senator from Macron’s centrist party, told AFP at the demonstration.
“There are other places to discuss this than the street. You cannot block the country and economy because you consider the president to be illegitimate.”
Sunday’s protest was almost double the size of the “yellow vest” demonstration in Paris a day earlier, when some 4,000 people came out to rail against Macron.
The protesters are named after the luminous road safety vests that they wear.
Originally sparked by rises in fuel taxes, the movement quickly snowballed into a widespread revolt over accusations the president, an ex-banker, is out of touch with rural and small-town France.
But their numbers have ebbed in recent weeks after Macron announced a series of policy climbdowns and launched a two-month consultation to allow people to vent their anger.
– Prominent ‘yellow vest’ hurt –
Saturday’s protest in Paris saw a prominent “yellow vest” activist, Jerome Rodrigues, badly injured. Both Rodrigues and his lawyer Philippe de Veulle said he was hit in the eye by a police rubber bullet, an anti-riot weapon that has become highly controversial in France.
“He is in shock. He will be handicapped for life. It is a tragedy for him and his family,” de Veulle told BFM television.
Rodrigues, a construction worker, was placed in an artificial coma overnight after the incident at the Bastille monument on Saturday afternoon.
The 40-year-old, who has 50,000 followers on Facebook, was live-streaming the protest on the website when he was hit.
De Veulle said Rodrigues was struck in the eye with a “flashball”, referring to the 40-mm (1.6-inch) rubber projectiles used by French riot police.
Later Sunday Rodrigues told reporters he would remain in hospital for a further five days, adding that only time would tell if his vision had been damaged.
He said he had agreed with Eric Drouet, another leading figure in the movement, to launch a “call for calm” while at the same time pressing on and strengthening the protests “without violence”.
“I will not stop, I will be back at the demonstrations as soon as my health permits me,” he said.
Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez on Sunday told LCI television there was “no evidence” to show Rodrigues was hit by a police rubber projectile. Investigations were still looking into the incident.
The devices — which are not used in most European countries — have been blamed for dozens of serious injuries at “yellow vest” protests, leading to calls for them to be banned.
On Saturday, police using the weapons were for the first time deployed wearing body cams in a bid to increase transparency.
Rodrigues’ lawyer insisted his client was not one of the “hooligans” who have been joining the weekly protests to cause trouble for police.
In the video, Rodrigues can be heard several times warning protesters to leave the Bastille area because hard-left “black bloc” agitators were coming to attack the police.
Witnesses picked up the projectile that struck Rodrigues and police are investigating the circumstances of the incident.