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Explainer: Who are France's 'yellow vest' protesters and what are they looking for?

Protesters have called for another demonstration to take place on the Champs-Elysees today.

Image: Boivin Samuel/ABACA

POLICE IN PARIS will bar traffic from the Champs-Elysees and only allow pedestrians in after ID checks in an attempt to prevent a repeat of protests that have shaken the country’s government in the last fortnight.

The ‘yellow vests’ as they have become known have called for another demonstration to take place today on the famous shopping street.

Authorities are concerned, however, that further violence will break out if they allow it to go ahead.

On 17 November, a protester was accidentally killed during a protest in the eastern Savoie region. A number of police officers were also injured that day in similar demonstrations around the country. 

And last weekend there were violent clashes between police and demonstrators on the Champs-Elysees, where barricades were set on fire, luxury shops were looted and traffic lights were uprooted. Around 30 people were injured and more than 100 were arrested.

Source: Boivin Samuel/ABACA

Yesterday  there were similar clashes between police in Brussels and yellow vest protesters there. Riot officers used water cannons to disperse stone-throwing protesters who burned two police vehicles. 

So who are the ‘yellow vests’?

The movement sprang up last month as a response to hikes in car fuel taxes as people living in small towns and the countryside – who need to get around by car – perceive the  increase as a bias in favour of big cities.

The changes, which are due to be introduced on 1 January, will see tax on diesel will go up by 6.5 cents and gasoline tax will rise by 2.9 cents. 

They have become known as ‘yellow vest’ protests because the people taking part wear high-visibility vests, which all drivers in France are required to keep in their cars. They have organised road blockages all across the country – most recently last weekend on the Champs-Elysees. 

Source: Lafargue Damien/ABACA

The message coming from protesters has expanded beyond calls for a reversal to this decision.

Famke Krumbmüller, an expert in French politics at OpenCitiz political consultancy firm in Paris told NBC News that this movement represents “the white middle class, the forgotten middle class in France”.

Many complain they barely scrape by and get scant public services despite the high tax they pay for these services.

Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Some protesters want to reverse Macron’s tax cuts for the rich and put in place more measures for the country’s poorest. 

Many have called for President Emmanuel Macron to resign. 

Why are the police so concerned about the protests?

Two weeks ago a female protester was killed and more than 220 people were injured as tens of thousands blocked roads across the country. 

In the eastern Savoie region, the 63-year-old woman was killed when a mother trying to take her daughter to see a doctor panicked after protesters surrounded their car, and suddenly accelerated into the crowd. Almost 283,000 people were estimated to have taken part in more than 2,000 protests at roundabouts and on major highways that day.

On 23 November, a 45-year-old man wearing an explosive device – and a yellow vest – at a car wash in the town of Angers demanded protesters be given an audience by President Macron. 

He surrendered after several hours of negotiation and the movement has condemned his actions. 

The next day – last Saturday – several thousand demonstrators in yellow vests gathered on the Champs-Elysees. Police said there were a number of incidents linked to “the presence of members of the far-right who harassed the security forces”. 

Source: Lafargue Damien/ABACA

Police arrested 130 people, 69 of those in Paris, and 24 people were injured, five of them police officers including one who suffered burns to his groin.

The French protest a lot – how is this different?

Commentators have noted that this movement doesn’t really have any clear leaders and much of the organisation is done on social media.

Though the government has blamed far-right supporters for violence on the Champs Elysees last weekend, overall the protesters come from diverse social and political backgrounds. 

An opinion poll published this week found two-thirds of French people back the protests and nearly 80% reject Macron’s proposed tax measures. 

There was an attempt yesterday by the French government to negotiate with the movement, but just two of the eight invited representatives turned up for the meeting with the prime minister. One of them immediately walked out after he was told he could not invite TV cameras in to broadcast the meeting live. 

Jason Herbert, the one who stuck around for the whole meeting said the two representatives who had turned up had received “physical and verbal threats” from other protesters, some of whom are opposed in principle to having appointed leaders.

Macron has refused to back down on his anti-pollution taxes, part of his effort to green the economy.

Source: Pool/ABACA

Speaking on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina Friday, he said he understood “the legitimate anger, the impatience and the suffering of some people” and called for more time to organise consultations on how to transform France into a low-carbon economy without penalising the poor.

But he also warned that any measures announced “in the coming weeks and months” would “never be a retreat” on policy.

- With reporting by Michelle Hennessy.

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