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By Saphora Smith
PARIS — The French capital was shut down on Saturday as the city braced itself for what many fear will be the most violent protests in weeks of forceful anti-government demonstrations that have swept the country.
Protests that began last month against planned tax hikes on gas have since morphed into a wider rebuke of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency and an expression of anger at his attempts to reform France’s long-ailing economy.
Almost eight in ten people in France support the protests, according to a poll published last week.
Paris was largely deserted on Saturday morning as riot police waited on street corners and the first streams of protesters walked toward the Champs-Elysees, chanting the country’s iconic national anthem and waving the tricolor flag as they passed the presidential palace.
Store fronts along the world-famous street — the scene of last week’s clashes between demonstrators and police — were barricaded behind plywood sheets in preparation for yet more violence.
Elsewhere hundreds of people were already in custody, authorities said, as police fired tear gas at protesters.
Officials said they planned to deploy 8,000 police across the capital Saturday, as the Interior Minister Christophe Castaner warned “ultra-violent people” would try to descend into Paris’s boulevards.
“According to the information we have, some radicalized and rebellious people will try to get mobilized tomorrow,” Castaner told a press conference Friday.
Paris’s glittering museums and galleries — including the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower — said they would not open their doors to the usual troop of holiday season tourists.
Soccer matches have also been called off across the country.
As Parisians prepared for what looked to be another weekend of destruction, the vast majority who spoke to NBC News on Friday said they supported the grievances of the so-called Yellow Jackets.
While many said they were perturbed by the protests’ escalating violence, they also said they shared the demonstrators’ frustrations. Namely, the high-cost of living in France and Macron’s appetite for reform.
“There is great anger in France at the moment,” said André Rubinot, a retired baker whose old boulangerie stands in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
“The president has too many reforms and he is going about them too quickly without asking anyone — quick, quick, quick,” he said.
Like others, Rubinot lamented that life had become too expensive as he ticked off different household goods that had gone up in price. “A baguette is now one euro 20 cents,” ($1.36) said the 68-year-old in disbelief.
The French have a tendency for fiercely opposing reform and quickly falling out of love with their presidents.
Macron, a former investment banker who swept to power on a reformist agenda, was supposed to be different.
The young centrist pledged to overhaul the country’s generous welfare state, which redistributes wealth across society with high taxes for the rich.
France has high levels of social security and workers’ rights, making it difficult to enact business-friendly reforms in spite of persistent unemployment.
But while he’s enjoyed a high profile on the global stage, he has struggled to pass legislation at the heart of his domestic agenda.
Macron has faced demonstrations throughout his year-long tenure, but the “Yellow Jacket” protests represents a more fundamental challenge to his authority.
A November poll found that only 26 percent of French people have a favorable opinion of their president.
The findings mean Macron is now less popular than his predecessors Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy at the same stage of their presidencies. Both would eventually leave office beset by opposition and scandal.
The protests gained even more momentum this week after French farmers and trade unions vowed to join the fray.
Students have also been protesting across France in a series of demonstrations against education reform, some have said they are protesting in solidarity with the “Yellow Jackets.”
As different grievances on the palette of discontent begin to merge, many people in Paris said they thought it would become increasingly difficult for Macron to put an end to the unrest.
In a last-ditch attempt to quell the uproar, Macron agreed Wednesday to abandon the gas tax increases which he had previously defended as necessary to help reduce France’s dependence on fossil fuels.
However, his concessions appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
Many on the streets of Paris Friday accused Macron of not listening to the people and several said his U-turn amounted to too little too late.
“The government should do more, it should have reacted better,” said Abdul Asis, a 28-year-old construction worker who described himself as “100 percent behind the Yellow Jackets.”
Joseph Downing, an expert in French politics at the London School of Economics, agreed that the protests were about “much more” than taxes on gas.
“It’s this entire idea of the squeezed middle or the squeezed upper working-class person who feels an entitlement to an ever-increasing standard of living but is something that no politician can deliver,” he said.
“This is where we’ve seen disenfranchisement with Sarkozy, with Hollande and now with Macron.”
The self-organized approach of the protest, which sprung up from the depths of social media, is also a relatively new phenomenon in France where people have historically relied on the powerful unions to organize discontent.
Several people who spoke to NBC News said the strength of the “Yellow Jackets” lies in the fact that the protest isn’t specifically linked to any political party or union and has therefore united swathes of the population.
“The politicians are afraid because they don’t know how to stop it,” said Julian Guillo, a 23-year-old property student. “It’s not one organization, it’s the people.”
Several people directed their frustration directly at Macron, who they described as out of touch.
“He’s the president of the rich,” said Louis Boyard, a student leader at the high-school student protest Friday. “The youth are angry, we are against Emmanuel Macron.”
Among the many grievances listed at the protest were changes in university admissions procedures and fees, which students and teachers said would make admission more selective and limit access to higher education.
“We have to get rid of Macron to get to a fairer society,” said Homa Javadi, 18, who said she supported the cause of the so-called Yellow Jackets.
But while the anger is widespread, the appetite for violence and destruction is not.
“Vandalising the Arc de Triomphe is unacceptable,” said Lea Chauvet, a high school graduate who was chatting with a friend outside the Pantheon, a mausoleum to the distinguished citizens of the republic, on Friday.
“I wouldn’t want to associate myself with people who destroy everything,” she added, explaining one reason she would not go to the protest.
It’s not just the students who lay the blame at Macron’s door, though. Rubinot, the baker, said the president talked down to the people and portrayed himself as “king-like.”
The fact that Macron has largely kept a low-profile since surveying the damage after last weekend’s protests has further angered those looking for signs of change from the presidential palace.
“He’s not saying anything and the country’s on fire,” said Meredith Saban, 38, a director of a human resources firm said who was having a cigarette on the Champs-Elysee.
“He’s mocking the people.”