Protesters wave French flags as a so-called Freedom Convoy (Convoi de la Liberte) passes through Chartres, northern France, on February 11, 2022. - Thousands of protesters in convoys, inspired by Canadian truckers paralysing border traffic with the US, were heading to Paris from across France on February 11, with some hoping to blockade the capital in opposition to Covid-19 restrictions despite police warnings to back off. The protesters include many anti-Covid vaccination activists, but also people protesting against fast-rising energy prices that they say are making it impossible for low-income families to make ends meet. AFP
Inspired by Canadian truckers paralysing border traffic with the United States, the demonstrators include anti-Covid vaccination activists, but also people angry at fast-rising energy prices.
Some drivers parked on the fringes of Chartres, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Paris, left at around 5:00 am (0400 GMT), according to messages seen by AFP.
Messages said the aim was to "create a mass of vehicles that the forces of order would find impossible to contain".
"Faced with several thousand vehicles capable of stopping or being on the move" the police would not be able to do much, one message said.
Nearly 7,200 police and gendarmes "are being deployed over the next three days to enforce the ban on vehicle convoys," Paris police headquarters said.
The prefect of the Paris police, Didier Lallement, said they had created a temporary car pound which, together with dozens of tow trucks, "will ... put an end to any blockage".
Police showed off their anti-blockage arsenal on Twitter, publishing photographs of loader tractors for the removal of barricades as well as trucks equipped with cranes or water cannon.
Gendarmerie armoured vehicles have also been deployed in the streets of the capital for the first time since the "yellow vest" protests at the end of 2018.
Prime Minister Jean Castex vowed to remain steadfast.
"If they block traffic or if they try to block the capital, we must be very firm about this," he said.
Hundreds of cars, motorhomes and vans from Lille, Strasbourg, Chateaubourg and elsewhere stopped Friday evening at the gates of Paris, but a police source said no convoy had entered the capital.
They are demanding a withdrawal of the government's vaccine pass, which is required for access to many public spaces, and more help with their energy bills.
"People need to see us, and to listen to the people who just want to live a normal and free life," said Lisa, a 62-year-old retired health worker who joined a convoy of more than 1,000 vehicles leaving Chateaubourg in the western Brittany region early Friday.
Like other protesters, Lisa has been active in the "yellow vest" movement that erupted over a fuel tax hike before becoming a platform for other complaints against President Emmanuel Macron.
Just two months ahead of presidential elections and with the government desperate to avoid violent scenes in the capital, Macron said Friday he understood the "fatigue" linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"This fatigue also leads to anger. I understand it and I respect it. But I call for the utmost calm," he told the Ouest-France newspaper.
'It's a betrayal'
Police estimated 3,300 vehicles were involved in the various convoys by Friday afternoon.
Paris police banned the gathering because of feared "public order disturbances" and said protesters who tried to block roads would face fines or arrest.
The order prohibiting the assembly of convoys was upheld on Friday by the courts, which rejected two appeals.
"It's a betrayal. The basis of the order is not respectful of the law, of the freedom to demonstrate," anti-vaccine and "yellow vest" activist Sophie Tissier told AFP.
"The right to demonstrate and to have an opinion are a constitutionally guaranteed right in our republic and in our democracy. The right to block others or to prevent coming and going is not," the prime minister said.
Refuting any desire to block the capital, the demonstrators were hoping to swell the ranks of the regular Saturday protests against the government's vaccine pass.
"It's important that we don't interfere with other people on the roads," said one activist, Robin, on his way from Illkirch-Graffenstaden in the eastern Alsace region. "That way we'll keep the population on our side, like they did in Canada."
Some then want to travel on to Brussels for a "European convergence" of protesters planned there for Monday.
Phil, a 58-year-old on his way by truck from Brittany, said his refusal to get vaccinated had created "upheaval" in his family and work relations.
"When you join a demonstration you feel less alone," he told AFP.