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France’s ‘Freedom Convoy’ disrupts traffic on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, confronts police

French police fired tear gas at demonstrators on Feb. 12 after a "Freedom Convoy" protesting coronavirus restrictions made it into the capital. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/Reuters)

PARIS — French protesters opposed to pandemic restrictions temporarily blocked parts of the Champs-Élysées on Saturday, disrupting traffic on the capital’s most recognizable street and marking the first major European emulation of Canada’s anti-government and anti-vaccine mandate movement.

Usually busy with thousands of tourists and locals on a Saturday afternoon, the central Parisian luxury shopping street was the scene of confrontations. Officers fired tear gas to disperse protesters. Demonstrators responded by honking from camper vans and cars, as pedestrians sought refuge in nearby restaurants.

By the evening, authorities appeared to have gained more control of the situation, and many vehicles had been towed away, but skirmishes between officers and protesters continued.

The protesters had made it into central Paris despite an order banning them from entering the capital. French authorities, who had deployed more than 7,000 police officers to stop the convoys, warned that violators could face two years in prison, a fine of more than $5,000 and a suspended driver’s license.

Before protesters breached defenses around the Champs-Élysées, authorities said earlier on Saturday that they had prevented 500 vehicles from entering the capital, and penalized hundreds of people.

Similar convoys were also headed to other European cities on Saturday, emulating Canadian truck drivers opposed to cross-border vaccine requirements who descended on Ottawa two weeks ago. In the Netherlands, traffic came to a standstill in parts of The Hague, as protesters reached the seat of the Dutch government in the city. Officials in the Belgian capital of Brussels were still bracing for convoys that may arrive there on Monday despite an entry ban.

Police start to clear ‘Freedom Convoy’ protesters on Ontario border bridge.

In France, Saturday’s disruptions marked a possible resurgence of last year’s wave of anti-health pass protests that at one point drew hundreds of thousands every week. Then and now, protesters’ anger has been directed toward President Emmanuel Macron, who was among the first leaders to impose a far-reaching health pass for the general population and vaccine mandates for certain professions.

The protests last year united a wide range of demonstrators, including activists from the far left who worried about government restrictions on their freedoms and far-right conspiracy theorists, before their numbers eventually dwindled.

France first imposed a health pass — documenting vaccination, recovery from covid or a recent negative coronavirus test — last summer. The pass allowed access to numerous venues, including museums, restaurants and trains and was meant to prevent another lockdown.

But in a less widely approved step, Macron’s government tightened the rules further last month, removing the possibility of gaining access with only a negative test, which effectively banned unvaccinated people from those venues. Macron publicly stated in an interview that his goal was to “piss off” the minority who remain unvaccinated, by making daily life harder for them.

About 80 percent of the country is fully vaccinated, and a majority of the French still supports the vaccine pass. But overall public confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic has been on the decline, with some saying the rules are tougher than needed, as recent hospitalizations have remained lower than feared.

In an interview, Macron acknowledged Friday that some of the sentiments driving the self-described “Freedom Convoy” protests may be legitimate — a strikingly different tone only days after a senior member of his government had called them a “convoy of shame and selfishness.”

With two months left until presidential elections in April, “Freedom Convoy” protests that disrupt central traffic arteries could still have an outsize impact on the country’s political debate. Even though many of the protest slogans and banners remained focused on pandemic restrictions on Saturday, the scope of the demonstrators’ demands has widened, encompassing anger over rising energy prices and costs of living.

The two leading candidates on the far left and far right have both indicated support. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon said he could see himself support the protests, while on the far-right, Marine Le Pen similarly said this week that she “understands” the concerns, and urged demonstrators to vote in the upcoming elections to make their frustration heard.

Le Pen went on to say that the sight of armored police vehicles on the streets of Paris this weekend “resembles [Macron’s] mandate … of chaos, disorder, conflict, division of the French people.”

Macron’s opponents have drawn similarities between the “Freedom Convoys” and France’s Yellow Vest movement in 2018 and 2019, which was initially prompted by an increase in fuel taxes but quickly swelled in size and drew early public support because it captured broader concerns over social inequality and the alienation of some voters. The Champs-Élysées became one of the movement’s central destinations.

Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.

Read more:

Unvaccinated pockets of France expose inequalities and could fuel a winter wave

Despite weeks of protests, France implements health pass at cafes and train stations with little drama

How vaccine-skeptic France and Germany came to support near-mandates