Gilets jaunes protesters engaged in a ninth weekend of protests across France on Saturday as president Emmanuel Macron prepared to stake his political future on an open letter to the French and a national debate.
Officials said 32,000 demonstrators turned out across the country, several thousand more than last weekend. Gilets jaunes – named after the hi-vis yellow vests French motorists must carry in their vehicles – said the number was higher but did not give a figure.
After the violence of previous weeks, the government engaged in a show of strength deploying 80,000 police officers nationwide, with some 7,000 in Paris.
As night fell, security forces used teargas and water canon against gilets jaunes at the Arc de Triomphe.
In Bourges, a town of 66,000 people in central France – chosen because of its central location – gilets jaunes gathered despite a ban on protesting in the historic centre.
Police said there 102 arrests in Paris, 74 of them remanded in police custody and 167 at Bourges. There were 6,000 gilets jaunes demonstrators at Bordeaux, according to local police, and gilets jaunes continued to block traffic at roundabouts across the country.
The latest opinion polls show a slight reduction in the high level of public support for the gilets jaunes following last weekend’s violence, and a slight increase in popularity for president Emmanuel Macron, whose approval rating remains at a low of 30%.
Bruno Cautrès, of the elite Sciences Po political research unit CEVIPOF, said the gilets jaunes movement was at a “crossroads”.
“We are beginning to see in our research that the question of violence will polarise the movement between those, like members of the France Insoumise (far left) and the Rassemblement Nationale (far right), who feel this violence might be justified and others who feel it’s gone too far.
“Having said that the level of support for the gilets jaunes remains high.”
The gilets jaunes movement began in November as a protest against a new eco-tax on petrol and diesel. Although the government dropped the tax and made certain concessions to protesters, the movement has grown to encompass a wide range of demands, including giving people a greater say in policy via citizens’ referenda.
Macron has attempted to take the sting out of the protests by announcing the “great national debate” to sound out the public on four themes: taxation, state institutions, democracy and citizenship, but just days before the consultation is due to begin on Tuesday, there is still confusion over how it will be carried out.
The president will publish an open letter to the French people on Monday to “explain what I intend to do”. He said the debate was “a vital and very useful moment for our country”.
“It’s a great opportunity and everyone must take it … I want a real debate,” he said.
Cautrès added: “There is a situation of extreme tension and frustration in the country. Our research shows an rejection of politics, politicians and political parties. to the point of disgust and distrust. The level of this is really incredible.
“At the moment we don’t know the position Macron will take: will it be, ‘I have heard the people but I’m continuing my reforms’, or ‘I have heard the people and will adapt my programme’? That’s the unknown element,” Cautrès said.
“If he and the government can show it is taking people’s hopes and views into account it might be one positive thing to come out of this and lighten the very dark place that France is in right now.”
Eddy Fougier, a political researcher with the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said the national debate was the government’s only option for “getting out of this crisis”.