A man wearing a yellow vest uses a wheelchair to pass in front of French riot police standing guard during clashes with demonstrators on the sidelines of the annual May Day rally in Paris on May 1, 2019. (Zakaria Abdelkafi/AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Paris and other French cities Wednesday in a May Day labor demonstration, an annual event that carried unusual venom in the era of France’s “yellow vest” movement.

In what has become a familiar scene in the French capital, police fired tear gas at demonstrators as they streamed through the tony Montparnasse neighborhood. Protesters responded with projectiles.

The Interior Ministry announced late in the day that about 164,500 demonstrators had turned out nationwide, an estimated 28,000 of them in Paris. Independent watchdogs put the Paris figure higher, around 40,000. More than 7,000 police officers were dispatched to safeguard the city from vandals who sometimes use these protests as cover.

The May Day protest is a routine occurrence in France, a staple of life in one of Europe’s proudest welfare states. Violent skirmishes between police and protesters also come with the territory and are reported every year. But this year, normal labor demonstrations have coincided with a long-simmering protest over social inequality.

For the past five months, France has been rocked by the yellow vest movement, a loose confederation of leftists and anarchists who condemn rising social inequality and the perceived indifference of President Emmanuel Macron to their concerns.


French riot police confront protesters during traditional May Day labor marches in Paris, May 1, 2019. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

In weekly demonstrations that have often turned violent, the yellow vest protesters have attacked carbon taxes and pension cuts and, in general, have highlighted a sense of abandonment shared by many in rural areas far from affluent enclaves.

Union organizers expressed regret for what they saw as a small minority attempting to hijack a legitimate protest for their own ends.

“I condemn in advance all the gratuitous violence that will be carried out,” said Laurent Berger, head of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), one of the country’s largest unions. “This has nothing to do with international Labor Day,” he added in an interview on France’s BFM television.

The vitriol of the yellow vest demonstrations has taken the French government by surprise, and Macron has twice promised concessions to the yellow vests — once in mid-December and again last week, when he held a rare news conference to address a nation bewildered by a seemingly unending protest.

Although Macron has already raised the national minimum wage and cut some pension taxes, he promised “significant” tax cuts last week. But he has also refused to reconsider his decision to slash France’s notorious wealth tax — rejecting a key demand of many in the movement.


Masked protesters burn furniture during clashes with riot police in Paris, May 1, 2019. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

In any case, the majority of those who have marched in high-visibility yellow vests appear to have given up: 282,000 participated in the first such march in mid-November, while only about 23,600 marched on Saturday.

Although the yellow vests began with a wave of public support, polls now show that nearly 60 percent of French voters wish they would stop.