Demonstrations across France by the “Yellow Vests” movement drew around half the number of last week’s protesters, suggesting that Emmanuel Macron’s concessions have dented the campaign’s momentum.
While protesters still called for the president to step down for a fifth Saturday in a row, placards calling for a higher minimum wage were replaced by those seeking a citizens’ referendum.
Some 66,000 people had taken part by 6 p.m., down from the 126,000 at the same time last Saturday, Agence-France Presse reported, citing estimates from the Interior Ministry. The ministry counted about 4,000 protesters on a cold and rainy day in Paris, down from 10,000 a week earlier.
“The Yellow Vests movement is in its concluding phase,” former President Francois Hollande told reporters, adding that the fact that Macron had given in to some demands showed that the movement was “useful,” because it resulted in “significant advances” for part of the population.
People across France have been donning high-visibility vests for more than a month to express a range of grievances and demands, ranging from lower taxes and higher wages to better public services.
Last week, the protests in Paris saw looting, torched cars and damage to shops, restaurants and property. Macron has scrambled to limit the economic damage caused by the protests and blockades, and on Monday announced a package to boost the minimum wage, scrap taxes on overtime and raise pensions.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner had warned on Friday that the demonstrations were attracting looters and violent extremists from the political left and right, prompting the French government to say it would deploy 8,000 police officers and armored vehicles in the capital.
“Thanks to the strong commitment of our police forces within the framework of a revised doctrine, the day ends well,” Castaner said in a tweet on Saturday. “Now dialogue has to bring together all those who wants to transform France.”
Police again used tear gas and water cannons to clear parts of the Champs-Elysees in central Paris, but the clashes that took place were on a far smaller scale. Police had apprehended 168 people in the capital around 6 p.m., with 112 of them taken in for custody, compared with more than 700 arrests carried out at the same time a week ago.
The protests have already battered the French economy, crushing growth just as Macron is in need of a boost to help deliver his reform agenda. The country’s private sector contracted in December for the first time during Macron’s presidency and the Bank of France has cut its growth forecasts for this year and the next as a broad cross section of industries are reporting falling output.
Amid the disruptions, the French are losing the will to spend: Sales sacrificed to the protests already exceed 1 billion euros ($1.13 billion), according to the FCD national retail federation. More than half of French people have changed their Christmas shopping plans due to the protests, according to an Opinionway poll published on Dec. 7, and one in five said they were ordering online for safety reasons.
Last night, an eighth person died in relation to the conflict, Castaner said in a separate tweet Saturday night, referring to accidents that have happened around road blocks set up by the protesters. “The roundabouts must be freed and the safety of all must again become the rule,” he said.
Saturday’s protests took part just days after a man shot people at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, killing several and wounding a dozen.