People run during street clashes with police and hardline demonstrators in Paris, France, May 1 2019. Picture: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP
People run during street clashes with police and hardline demonstrators in Paris, France, May 1 2019. Picture: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

Paris — Riot police fired teargas as they squared off against hardline demonstrators among tens of thousands of May Day protesters, who flooded Paris on Wednesday in a test of France’s zero-tolerance policy on street violence. 

Tensions were palpable as a heady mix of labour unionists, “yellow vest” demonstrators and anti-capitalists gathered in the French capital, putting security forces on high alert.

Ahead of the main march, the city was on lockdown as more than 7,400 police and gendarmes were deployed, with orders from President Emmanuel Macron to take an “extremely firm stance” if faced with violence.

Clashes briefly erupted on Montparnasse Boulevard, where hundreds of anti-capitalist “black bloc” activists pushed to the front of the gathering crowd, hurling bottles and other projectiles at police, who fired teargas and stingball grenades, an AFP correspondent said.

Used at ground level, the grenades release scores of rubber pellets that cause an intense stinging to the legs.

Authorities had warned 2019’s marches were likely to spell trouble, coming barely a week after leaders of the yellow vest anti-government movement angrily dismissed a package of tax cuts by Macron.

And with some agitators vowing on social media to turn Paris into “the capital of rioting”, the government moved to deploy security on an exceptional scale throughout the capital.

In 2018, officials were caught off guard by about 1,200 troublemakers who ran amok in Paris, vandalising businesses and clashing with police.

By early afternoon, thousands had flocked to the Montparnasse area, many wearing the hi-visibility jackets that gave the name to the yellow vest protesters.

Since November, the city has struggled to cope with the weekly yellow vest protests, which have often descended into chaos as a violent minority smashed up and torched shops, restaurants and newspaper stands.

Across the city on Wednesday, streets were barricaded and shops had boarded up their windows, with police ordering the closure of all businesses along the route of the main march.

“We are not afraid of the union marches but of the black blocs,” local restaurant owner Serge Tafanel said.

Interior minister Christophe Castaner said several groups on social media had urged protesters to transform Paris into “the capital of rioting”, with police gearing up for the arrival of up to 2,000 activists bristling for a fight. Many are anti-capitalist youths who dress in black and wear face masks.

Nearly 200 motorcycle units have been deployed across the capital to respond swiftly to flare-ups of violence, and drones are being used to track protesters’ movements.

Castaner said police would carry out preemptive searches of anyone planning to march, a new tactic allowed under a security law passed recently in response to the yellow vest violence.

From the early hours, several dozen police officers could be seen at the city’s main train stations, carrying out random bag searches, journalists said. By early afternoon, police said 165 people had been detained for questioning.

Last Thursday, in a major policy speech aimed at calming the yellow vest anger, Macron promised a string of reforms including tax cuts worth €5bn.

The yellow vests rejected it as too little, too late, pledging to keep up the protests, which began in 2018 over rising taxes on fuel and pensions but have since morphed into a wider movement.

Although the numbers have steadily fallen, the rallies have remained in the headlines, largely over disorder by a handful of violent protesters along the Champs-Elysees.

Following a particularly violent demonstration in March, the government adopted a zero-tolerance approach, passing an anti-rioter bill which included making it a criminal offence to wear a mask at a protest.

France’s powerful labour unions are also hoping to use the traditional May Day march for workers’ rights to raise their profile after finding themselves sidelined for months by the grass-roots movement.

Like the yellow vests, the unions were disappointed by Macron’s speech.

“We must be careful not to lose the meaning of this day,” said Philippe Martinez, secretary-general of the CGT, one of France’s biggest unions.

“It is a day of mobilisation which deserves our full attention after Emmanuel Macron’s announcement in which he said: ‘I hear you and I’m not changing anything’.”