Paris, Dec 9 (AP/UNB) — The rumble of armored police trucks and the hiss of tear gas filled central Paris on Saturday, as French riot police fought to contain thousands of yellow-vested protesters venting their anger against the government in a movement that has grown more violent by the week.
A ring of steel surrounded the president's Elysee Palace — a key destination for the protesters — as police stationed trucks and reinforced metal barriers throughout the neighborhood.
Stores along the elegant Champs-Elysees Avenue and the posh Avenue Montaigne boarded up their windows as if bracing for a hurricane but the storm struck anyway Saturday, this time at the height of the holiday shopping season. Protesters ripped off the plywood protecting the windows and threw flares and other projectiles. French riot police repeatedly repelled them with tear gas and water cannon.
Saturday's yellow vest crowd was overwhelmingly male, a mix of those bringing their financial grievances to Paris — the center of France's government, economy and culture — along with groups of experienced vandals who tore steadily through some of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods, smashing and burning.
Police and protesters also clashed in other French cities, notably Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux, and in neighboring Belgium. Some protesters took aim at the French border with Italy, creating a huge traffic backup near the town of Ventimiglia.
The French government's plan was to prevent a repeat of the Dec. 2 rioting that damaged the Arc de Triomphe, devastated central Paris and tarnished the country's global image. It did not succeed, even though it was better prepared.
Although Saturday's protest in the French capital started out quietly, tear gas choked the Champs-Elysees Avenue by early evening.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said that 135 people had been injured and 974 taken into custody amid protests around the nation. Paris police headquarters counted 71 injuries in the capital, seven of them police officers.
An estimated 125,000 people demonstrated around France while 10,000 took their anger to the streets of Paris, double the number in the capital last week, the interior minister said. Toughening security tactics, French authorities deployed 8,000 security officers in the capital alone, among the 89,000 who fanned out around the country.
A Starbucks near the Champs-Elysees was smashed wide open and people were seen stepping over broken glass and serving themselves to beverages. The window of a nearby bank was smashed in with a wrought-iron decoration used to encircle city tree trunks.
All of the city's top tourist attractions — including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre museum — shut down for the day, fearing the kind of damage that hit the Arc de Triomphe a week ago. Christmas markets and soccer matches were cancelled. Subway stations in the city center closed and the U.S. embassy warned citizens to avoid all protest areas.
Yet in a sign of the financial disconnect that infuriates many of the protesters, a few blocks from the famed boulevard, people were sitting in Paris cafes, drinking cocktails and chatting.
Amid the melee, President Emmanuel Macron remained invisible and silent, as he has for the four weeks of a movement that started as a protest against a gas tax hike and metamorphosed into a rebellion against high taxes and eroding living standards.
The mayor of the city of Saint-Etienne, a town in southeast France hit by violence Saturday, castigated Macron for failing to speak out, saying it "feeds the resentment."
"This silence becomes contempt for the nation," the mayor, Gael Perdriau, of the opposition conservative party, said on BFMTV. "He has a direct responsibility in what is happening. He can't remain closed up in the Elysee."
France's yellow vest protesters have political stances ranging from the far right to the far left but the leaderless group is united in its sense that Macron and his government are out of touch.
"We are here to tell (Macron) our discontent. Me, I'm not here to break things because I have four children," said protester Myriam Diaz. "But I still want to be here to say 'Stop, that's enough.'"
Some protesters sang the French national anthem — "The Marseillaise" — as they confronted phalanxes of police in heavy riot gear. One protester in Paris showed an Associated Press reporter a fresh wound on his jaw, saying a rubber bullet fired by charging police had glanced his face.
"I was running with my hands up. They charged," said Ludovic, a 38-year-old cabinetmaker from the eastern city of Colmar. He only gave his first name, saying he feared being tracked by security authorities. He said he was fleeing the Champs-Elysees, choked with tear gas, when police moved in.
Even as blue armored trucks rumbled over cobblestone streets in Paris, a larger environmental march took place peacefully Saturday toward the city's Republique Plaza.
A scattering of yellow vests, as well as women, children and retirees, were among the 17,000 people marching to demand action against climate change. One sign read "No climate justice without fiscal and social justice."
Cyril, a 25-year-old garbage truck driver, came from Normandy with three others. He said he earns only 1,430 euros ($1,625) a month despite working 45 hours a week and has decided not to have children because doesn't feel he can earn enough to raise them. This was his third weekend of protesting in Paris.
"I've come to defend myself," he said, adding that he thought Macron's mistake was trying to reform the French economy too quickly. "He's done more in 18 months than the others in 30 years."
Macron on Wednesday agreed to abandon the fuel tax hike, which aimed to wean France off fossil fuels and uphold the Paris climate agreement. Many economists and scientists say higher fuel taxes are essential to save the planet from worsening climate change, but that stance hasn't defused the anger among France's working class.
Late Saturday, after announcing that the violence in Paris had been "contained," Castaner, the interior minister, took a victory stroll down the Champs-Elysees.
Tear gas had dissipated and a standoff was over. It had pitted a line of security forces, backed by two armored vehicles, against protesters, some lobbing objects and cherry bombs to taunt police.
Protesters also blocked roads, traffic roundabouts and highway tollbooths elsewhere in France and offshoot movements emerged in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Belgian police fired tear gas and water cannon Saturday at yellow-vested protesters calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Charles Michel. The protesters in Brussels threw paving stones, road signs, fireworks, flares and other objects at police and about 100 were detained.
Across the ocean, U.S. President Donald Trump seized the moment to once again criticize the 2015 Paris climate accord that he is abandoning.
"People do not want to pay large sums of money ... in order to maybe protect the environment," he tweeted.
Rome, Dec 8 (AP/UNB) — Six people, all but one of them minors, were killed and about 35 others injured in a stampede of panicked concertgoers early Saturday at a disco in a small town on Italy's central Adriatic coast, authorities said.
The dead included three girls and two boys and an adult woman, a mother who had accompanied her daughter to the disco in Corinaldo, where an Italian rapper was entertaining the crowd, Ancona police chief Oreste Capocasa said at the scene. The provincial capital of Ancona is the nearest big town.
Twelve of the 35 injured were in serious condition, Capocasa said.
The ages of the victims weren't immediately given. It wasn't immediately clear how many people were inside when the stampede erupted or the club's maximum capacity.
Italian fire officials and ANSA news agency said the audience at Italian rapper Sfera Ebbasta's concert at the Lanterna Azzurra nightclub panicked and ran for the exits after someone sprayed a substance similar to pepper spray.
A 16-year-old boy told ANSA that disco patrons were dancing while awaiting the start of the concert when the stampede erupted. The boy, who was being treated at a hospital, said that at least one of the emergency exits was locked when he tried to flee.
The report said authorities were investigating if emergency exits were working.
Paris, Dec 8 (AP/UNB) — Paris monuments and shopping meccas are locked down and tens of thousands of police are taking position around the country, fearing worsening violence in a new round of anti-government protests.
President Emmanuel Macron's government has warned that Saturday's "yellow vest" protests in Paris will be hijacked by "radicalized and rebellious" crowds and become the most dangerous yet after three weeks of demonstrations.
Authorities are deploying barricade-busting armored vehicles and 8,000 police in the capital alone, part of 89,000 security forces fanned out around France.
The Eiffel Tower and Louvre are shut along with hundreds of stores and businesses, fearing damage after rioting last Saturday that saw 130 people injured and the worst urban unrest in Paris in decades.
The protesters are angry at Macron and high taxes, among other problems.
Paris, Dec 7 (AP/UNB) — Authorities across France braced Thursday for the possibility of more riots and violence at anti-government protests this weekend, holding emergency meetings and deploying tens of thousands of police and security forces. Museums, theaters and shops in Paris announced they would close Saturday as a precaution — including the city's famed Eiffel Tower.
Police unions and city authorities met to strategize on how to handle the weekend protests, which are coming even though President Emmanuel Macron surrendered Wednesday night and cancelled a fuel tax hike that had unleashed weeks of unrest.
On the other side of France's volatile social debate, disparate groups of protesters did the same thing, sharing their weekend plans on social networks and chat groups.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told senators Thursday that the government will deploy "exceptional" security measures for the protests in Paris and elsewhere, with additional new forces on top of the 65,000 security officers already in place.
Some "yellow vest" protesters, French union officials and prominent politicians across the political spectrum called for calm Thursday after the worst rioting in Paris in decades last weekend.
Macron agreed to abandon the fuel tax hike, part of his plans to combat global warming, but protesters' demands have now expanded to other issues hurting French workers, retirees and students. And in a move questioned by both critics and supporters, the president himself has disappeared from public view.
The prime minister reiterated the government's plan to scrap a fuel tax rise planned by the previous government because of the "extreme tensions" France is facing.
"No tax deserves to put civil peace in danger," Philippe said.
The rioting in Paris has worried tourists, prompted the cancellation of four French league soccer matches this weekend around the country and damaged the local economy at the height of the holiday shopping season. Rampaging groups last weekend threw cobblestones through Paris storefronts and looted valuables in some of the city's richest neighborhoods.
The Eiffel Tower, along with more than a dozen museums, two theaters and other cultural sites in Paris, will be closed Saturday for security reasons. The Paris Opera has cancelled planned performances Saturday on its two Parisian sites.
Two music festivals in Paris have been postponed and the Arc de Triomphe remains closed since it was damaged in last weekend's protest, which left over 130 people injured.
Paris police have also urged shops in the city's high-end Champs-Elysees area to close Saturday as a precaution.
Protests simmered Thursday in several French regions.
Scores of protesting teens clashed with police at a high school west of Paris, as part of nationwide student protests over new university admissions procedures and rising administrative fees. Drivers wearing their signature yellow safety vests continued to block roads around France, expanding their demands to include broader tax cuts and wider social benefits.
A small union representing police administrators called for a strike Saturday, which could further complicate security measures. Two police union officials told The Associated Press they are worried that radical troublemakers from both the far right and far left will hijack Saturday's protests.
Meanwhile, videos on social media of police beating protesters at a Burger King near the Champs-Elysees have stoked the protesters' anger. A police spokeswoman said Thursday that an investigation is underway into that incident and police are examining other videos circulating online for possible violations.
Macron, the central target of the protests, has been largely invisible all week. After winning election overwhelmingly last year, the 40-year-old pro-business centrist has sought to make France more competitive globally. But his efforts have alienated even some supporters with badly explained reforms like tax cuts for the rich to spur investment in France. Many protesters feel Macron has an elitist, out-of-touch attitude that ignores the country's high taxes and high unemployment.
They felt the increased fuel tax in particular favored wealthy city folk who use public transportation over poorer rural residents who must drive to work or school or shops.
Macron doesn't face re-election until 2022 and his party has a strong majority in parliament, but his political opponents are increasingly vocal and plan a no-confidence vote in the government next week.
Clement Rozey, manager of a motorcycle shop in western Paris, spent two days and nights cleaning up after watching helplessly last weekend as thugs smashed his shop windows and emptied his shelves. He has boarded up the store and is among those staying closed on Saturday.
"We're going to have a security company with security guards inside and outside the shop," Rozey told the AP. "Everything has been fenced off, several times."
Yet he remains sympathetic to the protest movement.
"Just like everybody, we're strangled (financially) after the 15th of the month," he said, referring to the day when many French workers are paid. The protesters "are defending a cause, they're following through and rightly so. We support them whole-heartedly."
But violent troublemakers who pillage and riot?
"That's something else," Rozey said.
Moscow, Dec 6 (Xinhua/UNB) -- Russia's new Peresvet laser weapon systems have been put on combat duty, the Defense Ministry's Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper reported Wednesday.
The Peresvet laser complex entered into combat service on Saturday, said the report. And the ministry also released a video on social media of the weapon complex being deployed.
Russian military personnel operating those systems underwent special training at the Mozhaysky Military Space Academy in St. Petersburg, it added.
The systems are capable of "concealing the areas of deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles" and will be used in air defense and military defense, a military expert was cited by the newspaper as saying.
During his annual address on March, Russian President Vladimir Putin first announced the development of the systems, saying that "significant progress" was achieved in Russia's laser weaponry program and "there are all reasons to believe that we are one step ahead our rivals in this sphere."