Defying coronavirus ban, hundreds of 'Yellow Vests' protest in Paris

PARIS (Reuters) – Several hundred anti-government “Yellow Vest” protesters demonstrated in Paris on Saturday, defying a ban on mass gatherings that aims to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

In a televised address to the nation on Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron announced school closures and urged people to avoid close contact for fear of propagating the virus that has killed 79 people in France and infected more than 3,600.

The government on Friday banned all gatherings with more than 100 people. Paris police had already turned down requests for protesters to convene at sensitive sites on Saturday, including the Champs Elysees where there were violent clashes between security forces and protesters almost a year ago to the day.

“It’s Saturday, demonstration day. Some people think that the coronavirus won’t touch them and refuse to respect the advice,” said a riot police officer in front of a heavily armed vehicle blocking the road that leads to the presidential palace.

Central Paris had earlier been in lockdown, with police searching bags over concerns the protesters would seek to return to the Champs Elysees. The police cordon had been eased by lunch time.

The government published an official decree on Saturday stopping all non-essential gatherings, but hundreds of protesters, some wearing protective medical masks, marched from Montparnasse train station, chanting anti-Macron slogans.

A police source put the numbers at about 400.

Riot police briefly used teargas and about 2,000 security forces were deployed across the city to manage the crowd.

The protesters, named after the high-visibility jackets they wear, were holding a 70th consecutive Saturday of action. The movement emerged late in 2018, triggered by fuel tax rises, and swelled into a revolt against Macron’s government.

While protests are now much smaller, anger at Macron’s government remains and Saturday’s demonstration served as a remainder to the president a day before local elections.

Sunday’s vote is an important test for Macron, with opponents now particularly angered by his plans to reform the French pensions system. His party is not expected to do well.

“We had to come and mark the day to tell Macron that we’re still here and that we won’t accept his pension reform,” said one pensioner.

Voters will begin choosing mayors for 35,000 town halls and almost half a million councillors on Sunday in elections overshadowed by the coronavirus outbreak, which is expected to hit turnout.

Macron decided to go ahead with the elections despite concerns over the spread of the illness, which have led the government to shut schools and universities, suspend major sporting events, curtail public transport and close tourism attractions.

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