PARIS, France - Anticipating violent clashes that have broke out in the French capital and in other cities across the country over the last three weekends, the country's capital was placed under lockdown on Saturday.
The 'Act IV' protests by the 'Yellow Vest' (gilets jaunes) began early in the day, with early morning clashes breaking out in Paris as hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets and engaged in violent clashes with the police.
The intense violence on Saturday forced the riot police deployed in the capital to fire tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.
Early on Saturday, the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced that over 500 protesters had been detained in Paris already.
Protesters chanted slogans calling for the President Emmanuel Macron's resignation over the previously proposed fuel price and tax hikes.
'Robust response against troublemakers'
Ahead of the protests on Saturday, the Prime Minister Philippe delivered an address on French local television and appealed for restraint.
Philippe said, We will do all we can so that today can be a day without violence, so that the dialogue that we started this week can continue in the best possible circumstances."
Further, the French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner was quoted as saying in a report on the news site Brut, We have prepared a robust response. The troublemakers can only be effective when they disguise themselves as yellow vests. Violence is never a good way to get what you want. Now is the time for discussion."
He urged protesters to make their voices heard peacefully and to not get mixed up with "hooligans."
According to authorities, nearly 89,000 police officials were deployed across France on Saturday, with 8,000 cops stationed across Paris in specific.
Yet, clashes broke out in central Paris earlier on Saturday as protesters took to the streets for the fourth week to continue the wave of demonstrations that have gripped the country for three weeks now.
The protests that were initially called by the grassroots movement called 'Yellow Vests' (gilets jaunes) online, focussed on demonstrating against the fuel price hikes announced by Macron last month, as part of his campaign for cleaner cars and fuel.
However, thousands have participated in the protests over the last few weeks in various parts of the country, to protest not just the gas taxes, but also to express their anger over the high cost of living in the country and the President's highly criticized policies implemented over the last 18 months.
By afternoon, authorities in Paris said that a total of 575 people had been searched and briefly arrested, while 361 people remained in custody.
The police said that they had found potential weapons such as hammers, baseball bats and metal petanque balls on these 361 people, placing them under arrest immediately.
By 2 pm local time in Paris, a Police spokeswoman who spoke to reporters said that about 1,500 protesters had gathered on the Champs Elysees boulevard.
The spokeswoman added that huge groups of people spilled into other areas and many were found to be headed towards eastern Paris.
Further, the additional law enforcement authorities deployed in the capital were also set to handle the march against climate change that was scheduled for Saturday afternoon.
Anticipating violence, French authorities had temporarily blocked the ring road circling central Paris.
Further, authorities stated that hundreds of protesters had gathered around the Arc de Triomphe monument, which was defaced last Saturday with anti-Macron graffiti.
Last week, rioters torched dozens of cars and looted shops around this prominent area.
U-turn after worst riots in five decades
Last weekend, Paris witnessed the worst riots since May 1968 - as part of the third weekend of protests by the 'Yellow Vests.'
Protesters blocked roads, motorways, fuel depots, torched dozens of vehicles, smashed windows, looted boutiques, defaced historic structures in the capital, and engaged in violent clashes with the police last Saturday.
Following the protesters, during which 412 people were arrested in the capital and 263 people suffered injuries across France - the Paris police chief Michel Delpuech declared that the violence witnessed was "on a level not seen in decades."
Dozens of members of the country's security forces too were injured in last weekend's clashes.
The 18-month-old French government led by the young president came face to face with alarming levels of anger and the persistent weekend riots - forcing the Macron government to discuss ways to quell the protest.
Earlier this week, the French Prime Minister announced that the French administration had decided to suspend the planned increases to fuel taxes for at least six months.
Responding to the violent protests, Philippe said that anyone would have to be deaf or blind not to see or hear the roiling anger on the streets over the fuel tax hike policy.
Philippe said, "The French who have donned yellow vests want taxes to drop, and work to pay. Thats also what we want. If I didnt manage to explain it, if the ruling majority didnt manage to convince the French, then something must change. No tax is worth jeopardizing the unity of the nation.
While warning citizens against expecting better public services and lower taxes at the same time, the Prime Minister sought to reassure irked protesters that lawmakers would spend some time to discuss measures to help the working poor and squeezed middle-class who rely heavily on vehicles to commute.
Philippe said, If the events of recent days have shown us one thing, its that the French want neither an increase in taxes or new taxes. If the tax-take falls then spending must fall, because we dont want to pass our debts on to our children. And those debts are already sizeable."
Despite the decision become one of the biggest backflips by Macron's administration in his 18 month governance, the defiant President defended the plan as being critical to combating climate change.
However, the announcement by the French government failed to deliver the intended response as the Yellow Vests declared the move "inadequate."
A spokesman for the grassroots initiative, Benjamin Cauchy argued, The French dont want crumbs, they want a baguette.
He said that the Yellow Vests wanted a cancellation of the taxes and said that the government move was "either a disguised political snub or... to make fun of the French and put the tax back in six months."
Another spokesman for the group, Christophe Chalencon declared, Were being taken for idiots."
The move also drew criticism from Macron's political opponents, with the Senate leader of the centre-right opposition, the Republicans, Bruno Retailleau, saying the suspension was "absolutely inadequate."
Meanwhile, Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said that the government's postponement of the tax, instead of a cancellation "did not change much."
However, Macron has alleged that the protests have been hijacked by far-right and anarchists that are bent on violence and are stirring up social unrest to challenge Macron and security forces.
Avoiding deaths, damage and disgrace
On Friday evening, Macron visited some police teams in their barracks outside Paris, but hasn't made a statement so far, ahead of the anticipated weekend protests on Saturday.
On Saturday morning, Paris, that is usually decked up for the festive pre-Christmas shopping day around this time of the year, remained in lockdown from early in the day.
Thousands of French security forces braced for renewed rioting as several shops, museums, metro stations and popular tourist spots remained closed.
Shops were boarded up to avoid incidents of looting like witnessed last week, while authorities ensured that street furniture and construction site materials were removed, to prevent protesters from using such objects as projectiles.
Some key football matches and concerts were cancelled through the day.
The Eiffel Tower and museums like the Musee dOrsay, the Centre Pompidou and the Louvre were among the tourist landmarks that remained shut.
Residents were advised to stay at home if possible and dozens of streets were blocked.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said in a statement earlier in the day, "It's with an immense sadness that we'll see our city partially brought to a halt, but your safety is our priority. Take care of Paris on Saturday because Paris belongs to all the French people."
By mid-afternoon, some stress were covered with the Yellow Vest protesters, who yelled out slogans like "Macron, resign," even as the police fired tear gas, especially near the famous Champs-Elysees avenue.
Several protesters said they were planning on marching on Macrons presidential palace in anger against the leader who has been criticized as the "President of the rich."
Later in the day, Laurent Nunez, a junior interior minister, said that about 31,000 people were taking part in Saturday's demonstrations.
He pointed out that 8,000 protesters were in or around Paris and up to 5,000 were on the Champs-Elyses.