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Yellow vest protests hit with police water cannon, tear gas in Paris

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steven36

PARIS (Reuters) - Paris police fired water cannon and tear gas to push back “yellow vest” demonstrators from around the Arc de Triomphe monument on Saturday, in the ninth straight weekend of protests against French President Emmanuel Macron’s economic reforms.

 

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Thousands of protesters in Paris marched noisily but mostly peacefully through the Grands Boulevards shopping area in northern Paris, close to where a massive gas explosion in a bakery killed two firefighters and a Spanish tourist and injured nearly 50 people early on Saturday.

 

But small groups of demonstrators broke away from the designated route and threw bottles and other projectiles at the police.

 

Around the 19th-century Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs Elysees boulevard, riot police fired water cannon and tear gas at militant yellow-vest protesters after being pelted with stones and paint, witnesses said.

 

Groups of protesters also gathered on and around the Champs Elysees, the scene of disturbances in recent weeks, many of them calling loudly for Macron to resign.

 

“Macron, we are going to tear down your place!” one banner read.

 

The Interior Ministry said it estimated that there were 32,000 demonstrators nationwide on Saturday, including 8,000 in Paris, below the 50,000 counted last week and well below the record 282,000 nationwide on Nov. 17, the first day of yellow vest protests.

 

But the number of demonstrators in Paris was well above the past two weekends, when authorities counted just 3,500 people on Jan. 5 and only 800 on Dec. 29.

 

Much of central Paris was in lockdown on the first week of post-Christmas sales with bridges across the Seine river closed and official buildings such as parliament and the Elysee presidential palace protected by police barriers.

 

In Paris, 121 “gilets jaunes” (yellow vest) were arrested, some for carrying objects that could be used as weapons, police said. By nightfall, there had been no looting or burning of cars as seen in previous weeks.

 

There were also thousands of marchers in the cities of Bordeaux and Toulon in southern France as well as Strasbourg in the east and the central city of Bourges.

 

Bourges authorities said nearly 5,000 yellow vests stuck to the designated demonstration area. The historical city center was off-limits for demonstrators, but some 500 protesters made their way to the center where they scuffled with police and set garbage bins on fire.

 

Many businesses in Bourges had boarded themselves up to avoid damage and authorities had removed street furniture and building site materials that could be used for barricades.

 

In Strasbourg, up to 2,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the European Parliament building and later marched to the center of the city on the Rhine river border with Germany. No serious violence or looting was reported there.

 

More than 80,000 police were on duty for the protests nationwide, including 5,000 in Paris.

 

The “yellow vests” take their name from the high-visibility jackets they wear. Their rage stems from a squeeze on household incomes and a belief that Macron, a former investment banker seen as close to big business, is indifferent to their hardships.

 

Macron, often criticized for a monarchical manner, is to launch a national debate on Jan. 15 to try to mollify the yellow vest protest, which has shaken his administration.

 

The debate, to be held on the internet and in town halls, will focus on four themes - taxes, green energy, institutional reform and citizenship. But aides to Macron have said changing the course of Macron’s reforms aimed at liberalizing the economy will be off limits.

 

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steven36

Gas blast kills three in Paris amid lockdown for yellow vest protests

 

PARIS (Reuters) - Two French firefighters and a Spanish woman died and nearly 50 people were injured in a massive gas explosion that gutted the ground floor of a building in a central Paris shopping district on Saturday, authorities said.

 

The accident occurred with the center of the capital under security lockdown for a ninth consecutive Saturday of “yellow vest” protests. Large parts of the city were blocked off by riot police, although the protests have reduced in scale compared with November.

 

“As firemen were looking for a gas leak in the building, a dramatic explosion took place,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said, adding that one fireman had been buried under debris for several hours.

Castaner said on his Twitter feed that two firefighters had died and 10 people, including one other firefighter, had serious injuries. Another 37 people had lighter injuries, he said.

 

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell wrote on his Twitter feed that a Spanish woman had also died in the blast. French European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau confirmed her death in a Twitter message.

 

Spanish newspaper El Confidencial reported that the woman was a tourist visiting Paris with her husband, who was unharmed.

 

BUILDINGS SHAKEN, WINDOWS SHATTERED

Just hours after the blast, thousands of yellow vest protesters marched noisily but peacefully through the Grands Boulevards shopping district of northern Paris, just a few hundred meters (yards) from the scene of the explosion.

 

In recent years, France has suffered a string of deadly Islamist militant attacks in Paris, Nice, Marseille and elsewhere but authorities quickly ruled out foul play.

 

“A this stage we can say it (the gas blast) is clearly an accident,” Paris prosecutor Remi Heitz told reporters.

 

A police source said the explosion tore apart a bakery on the ground floor of the building in the rue Trevise. Witnesses said the force of the blast shattered nearby storefronts and rocked buildings hundreds of meters away.

 

More than 200 firefighters joined the rescue operation and two helicopters landed on the nearby Place de l’Opera to evacuate victims. Ambulances struggled to access the blast area because of police barriers set up to contain any violence by yellow vest protesters.

 

An eyewitness at a hotel nearby said he saw flames envelop the ground floor of the building blown out by the blast.

 

“There was broken glass everywhere, storefronts were blown out and windows were shattered up to the third and fourth floors,” said 38-year-old David Bangura.

 

He said that as he approached the scene, a woman was crying for help from the first floor of a building: “Help us, help us, we have a child”.

 

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