Paris riot police fired teargas as they squared off against hardline demonstrators among tens of thousands of May Day protesters who flooded the city Wednesday in a test for France’s zero-tolerance policy on street violence.
Tensions were palpable as a mix of labor unionists, “yellow vest” demonstrators and anti-capitalists gathered in the French capital, putting security forces on high alert.
More than 7,400 police and gendarmes were out on the streets with orders from President Emmanuel Macron to take an “extremely firm stance” if faced with violence, as parts of the city were on security lockdown.
Clouds of teargas wafted down Montparnasse Boulevard as the security forces charged at several hundred masked, black-clad anarchists who pushed to the front of the gathering crowd, hurling bottles and flares and shouting: “Everyone hates the police!”
MAY DAY: New footage shows police and protesters clashing in Paris as large crowds gathered for May Day rallies against the French government, with more than 7,000 police in the streets and tear gas deployed when demonstrations turned violent. https://t.co/yIL8Yb51iF pic.twitter.com/01jZfsWlF9
— World News Tonight (@ABCWorldNews) May 1, 2019
As well as tear gas, an AFP correspondent said police also used stingball grenades, which release scores of rubber pellets at ground level, causing an intense stinging to the legs.
Elsewhere, a handful of protesters set fire to dustbins and sheets of chipboard, pouring black smoke into the air.
But the number of incidents on the sidelines of the march appeared to be fewer than expected and less serious than seen in previous months.
Authorities had warned this year’s marches would likely spell trouble, coming barely a week after leaders of the yellow vest anti-government movement angrily dismissed a package of tax cuts by Macron.
And with some agitators vowing on social media to turn Paris into “the capital of rioting,” the government said it had deployed security on an “exceptional scale.”
By mid-afternoon, there were around 40,000 people at the May Day rallies in Paris, an independent media count said, while unions gave a figure of 80,000 and the interior ministry put the number at 16,000.
Ministry figures for the whole country gave a turnout of 151,000 people at events in some 200 towns and cities, but France’s powerful CGT union gave a figure of 310,000.
Caught up in the melee was top CGT official Philippe Martinez who had been waiting at the head of the march when the clashes began.
Forced to leave the area, he later returned, visibly agitated, with sharp words of criticism for the police whom he accused of “charging at well-identified union members.”
After the initial scuffles, a sense of relative calm returned as the main procession got under way, although things degenerated again towards the end as the marchers reached Place d’Italie.
Last year, officials were caught off guard as some 1,200 troublemakers gatecrashed the main Paris march, sparking violent clashes which left shops damaged and cars burnt.
May Day in Paris pic.twitter.com/5e2c3CL6KF
— aris roussinos (@arisroussinos) May 1, 2019
Since November, the city has struggled to cope with the weekly yellow vest protests, which have often descended into chaos with a violent minority smashing up and torching shops, restaurants and newspaper stands.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner had warned police were gearing up for the arrival of up to 2,000 activists – many of them anti-capitalist youths, known as black blocs, who dress in black and wear face masks.
By 1530 GMT, prosecutors said 220 people had been placed under arrest.
Marches in Europe and Beyond
Last Thursday, in a major policy speech aimed at calming the yellow vest anger, Macron promised a string of reforms including tax cuts worth five billion euros ($5.5 billion).
The yellow vests rejected it as too little, too late, pledging to keep up the protests, which began last year over rising taxes on fuel and pensions but have since morphed into a wider movement.
Following a particularly violent demo in March, the government adopted a “zero-tolerance” approach, passing an “anti-rioter” bill which included making it a criminal offense to wear a mask at a protest.
France’s powerful labor unions had hoped to use the traditional May Day march for workers’ rights to raise their profile after finding themselves sidelined for months by the grass-roots yellow vest movement.
Elsewhere, Turkish police arrested 127 people as they sought to hold a May Day rally in an Istanbul square in defiance of a ban, while in Saint Petersburg, police detained more than 60 after they chanted slogans against President Vladimir Putin.
And in Manila, some 8,000 protesters torched a giant effigy of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte over his policies’ impact on the nation’s poor.
But all eyes were on Venezuela, where opposition leader Juan Guaido has called for huge May Day protests to up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro after calling on the military to rise up against him.
As the crisis deepened, Washington said it was ready to intervene militarily “if that’s what’s required.”