French convoys head for Paris, police roadblocks set up

French Gendarmerie armored vehicles line a street in front of the Petit Palais near the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris as French motorists with anti-COVID restrictions and their ‘Freedom Convoy’ in France on February 11.GONZALO FUENTES/Reuters

France mobilized thousands of police, armored personnel carriers and water cannon trucks in Paris on Friday to prevent convoys of motorists converging on the capital to protest against COVID-19 restrictions.

Checkpoints have been set up at toll points on major entry roads while riot barriers have been erected in the city center ahead of rallies protesters aim to hold over the weekend.

Inspired by the resounding demonstrations of the “freedom convoy” in Canada, motorists – from many cities in France – were expected to gather outside Paris on Friday and seek to defy a police order not to enter the city.

“We have been going around in circles for three years,” said retired Jean-Marie Azais, a member of a “Freedom convoy” heading for the capital from the southwest, in reference to France’s anti-COVID strategy. .

“We saw the Canadians and we were like, ‘It’s great what they’re doing.’ In eight days, boom, something happened.

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As the evening rush hour began, police began checking drivers’ documents at various downtown entry points. More than 7,000 agents will be mobilized in the next 72 hours.

Convoy members exchanged information via social media on how best to slip through the city, dodging a police presence that included heavy lifting equipment to dismantle makeshift roadblocks.

“We have always safeguarded the right to demonstrate… but we need harmony and we need a lot of collective goodwill,” President Emmanuel Macron told the Ouest-France newspaper, while calling for calm.

Its Prime Minister, Jean Castex, was more direct. Citizens have the right to demonstrate but not to clog the capital, he said.

The Canadian protests, which have paralyzed parts of the capital Ottawa and blocked major crossings between the United States and Canada, have united truckers angered by a vaccination mandate for cross-border traffic.

But in France, it is ordinary citizens angry at the COVID-19 rules who take their vehicles. The protests show signs of unifying disparate opponents of Mr Macron, two months from an election in which he is expected to run again.

A crusade by Mr Macron against anti-vaxxers had been widely supported, with 80% in France having been inoculated, but public irritation over COVID-19 restrictions, including a widely enforced vaccination pass that has already triggered waves of protests, is increasing.

In Toulouse, a woman cheering on motorists said protesters should defy a police order to stay outside Paris city limits.

“The authorities cannot block everyone,” she said, withholding her name. “The convoys must force, they must still try to enter.”

Some far-right politicians and remnants of the anti-government Yellow Vest movement have shown support for the protesters.

Some among a crowd that waved at a convoy of vans, motorhomes and cars at Vimy in northern France wore the high-visibility vests that characterized those popular pre-pandemic protests of 2018 and 2019.

The revolt of the yellow vests shook the presidency of Mr. Macron for several months. What started as a protest against diesel taxes turned into a wider rebellion against Mr Macron and exposed deep-seated anger outside major cities at the high cost of living and an out-of-touch urban elite.

With soaring energy prices and a strong economic rebound leading to higher inflation, households are once again feeling the squeeze on budgets and public frustration simmering.

“The question everyone is asking is whether the freedom convoy is going to be a revival of the yellow vests,” a law enforcement source said.

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