A small town in the middle of France took centre stage in the battle between president Emmanuel Macron and anti-government protesters on Saturday, ahead of the launch of a national debate aimed at airing the grievances roiling the country.
In Bourges — a town of 70,000 people where prominent protesters had called for a rally in part due to its location — more than 6,000 took to the streets, according to local officials, in anger at Mr Macron.
“I’m here today because I’m not happy with what is happening in France,” said Serge Perrin, a 70-year-old retiree. “You can’t ask the French people to pay for the errors of globalisation.”
Although the march was mostly peaceful, a smaller group of gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, clashed with riot police who were blocking the town centre.
As the sun went down on a grey day, the violence intensified and Bourges’ picturesque streets were littered with burning bins and broken glass by 6pm local time.
Similar scenes were replicated throughout France as the protests picked up steam following the quieter holiday period, and after Mr Macron put forward billions of spending concessions last month.
There were 84,000 protesters throughout the country compared to 50,000 last week, according to the interior ministry. This was down from an estimated 287,000 when they began in November.
The gilets jaunes were again faced with tear gas and water cannons as 80,000 members of France’s security forces were deployed on the ninth straight weekend of protests.
The mayor of Bourges, Pascal Blanc, said that the government needed to act quickly and bring an end to the protests by finding a way to reconnect with the people of France. “This is the ninth act of this movement. How many acts will there be in this play?” asked Mr Blanc.
Mr Macron has both tried to appease the gilets jaunes — including by scrapping the planned fuel tax increase which sparked the movement — and taken a tough stance against more violent protesters.
One problem for Mr Macron is that the gilets jaunes are a disparate movement that lacks a leadership with which to negotiate. Their different strands are brought together by a shared hatred of Mr Macron, whom they accuse of being an aloof president of the rich that has not done enough to improve the lot of ordinary people. Many of the gilets jaunes want him to resign.
“Every time Macron has spoken he has insulted the gilets jaunes,” said Audrey, 31, before the march began. “His response to the gilets jaunes has been the security forces.”
Next week Mr Macron will outline the shape of a three-month “national debate” where citizens are being asked to air their grievances and make their wishes known.
The president is trying to draw a line under the protests as he looks to forge ahead with his reform agenda, but in Bourges the gilets jaunes remain unconvinced.
“This national debate won’t change anything,” said Audrey, who declined to give her second name. “Macron has already said he won’t change his direction. So it is optics.”
“To stick with your goal is a good thing for a politician but perhaps he [Macron] can change the path he takes to get there,” argued Mr Blanc.
“Mr Macron has cut a bit the links with local politicians,” added Mr Blanc. “The national debate [which will be run through mayors like Mr Blanc] is a bit of repositioning back towards those local politicians . . . and the links between them and the local people.”
According to a recent Elabe poll, support for the movement remains strong in France at near 60 per cent. However, that is down 10 per cent from December.