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Clashes mark 19th weekend of French 'yellow vest' protests

By Sudip Kar-Gupta
Protesters run away as tear gas is fired during 19th round of "yellow vests" protests in Nice, France, March 23, 2019. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

By Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) - Police fired tear gas at demonstrators in Paris and clashes broke out in other French cities on Saturday during the 19th consecutive weekend of "yellow vest" protests against President Emmanuel Macron's government.

However, with military units deployed in Paris for the first time to back up police, the unrest did not match the scale of last Saturday when shops along the Champs Elysees avenue were looted and vandalized.

The demonstration in the capital was largely peaceful but later in the afternoon police fired tear gas on protesters near Boulevard de Strasbourg. Some protesters set bins on fire.

Clashes also took place in cities including Lille in northern France, Lyon, Nantes, Toulouse, Montpellier and Nice.

The "yellow vests" protests, named after the bright jackets that French drivers have to keep in their cars and which have been worn by demonstrators, began in November after public anger against fuel tax rises.

The movement has morphed into a broader backlash against Macron's government, despite it scrapping the fuel taxes, and it has often been marred by violent clashes and looting.

The protests have hit the French economy, with France lowering its economic growth forecast for 2019 to 1.4 percent from 1.7 percent.

Demonstrators were banned from the Champs Elysees this Saturday and French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said authorities had handled the latest protests well despite the flare-ups of crowd trouble.

"The correct methods have been applied, and the results are there to be seen," Castaner said in a televised address.

Castaner said police had confiscated items such as baseball bats and masks from potential troublemakers, and around 170 people had been arrested and placed in custody on Saturday.

Even though they were banned from the Champs Elysees, demonstrators had gathered elsewhere to march from southern Paris, from where they crossed over the River Seine and ended up by the Sacre Coeur church in the north.

A yellow awning was briefly draped across the top of the Sacre Coeur, before being taken down by authorities.

Across France, 40,500 demonstrators turned up this Saturday, up from 32,300 last weekend, said Castaner. In Paris alone, the number of demonstrators fell to 5,000 from 10,000.

A policeman in Paris was taken ill, while a woman in her 70s was injured and taken to hospital as police cleared out demonstrators in Nice.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta; Additional reporting by Caroline Pailliez and Matthias Galante; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Alistair Bell)