‘Everything is a mess’: Morales exit rocks Bolivia, splits region

‘Everything is a mess’: Morales exit rocks Bolivia, splits region
By Daniel Ramos and Gram Slattery

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Looting, fighting and roadblocks convulsed Bolivia on Monday after President Evo Morales’ resignation ended his 14-year rule and created a power vacuum following weeks of violent protests.

The departure of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, who was the last survivor of a wave of leftist leaders in Latin America from two decades ago, came on Sunday when the military abandoned him amid unrest over his disputed Oct. 20 re-election.

The Organization of American States (OAS), which had denounced “manipulations” of that vote, exhorted Bolivian lawmakers to meet urgently to resolve the crisis.

With Morales’ deputy and many allies in government and parliament gone with him, opposition politician and Senate second vice-president Jeanine Añez flew into the capital saying she was willing to take temporary control until a new vote.

“I am afraid of what will happen, everything is a mess in the city. There are fights between neighbours,” said Patricia Paredes, a 25-year-old secretary in La Paz.

Overnight, gangs roamed the highland capital and other cities, businesses were attacked, rival political supporters clashed and properties were set on fire.

Schools and shops were largely closed, while public transport halted and roads were blocked.

Morales, 60, flew out of La Paz and was believed to still be in Bolivia – but his exact whereabouts were unclear.

He said he stepped down to ease the violence, but repeated on Monday accusations he was the victim of a conspiracy by political enemies including election rival Carlos Mesa and protest leader Luis Fernando Camacho.

“The world and our Bolivian patriots repudiate the coup,” he tweeted. “They moved me to tears. They never abandoned me. I will never abandon them.”

DIVIDED LATIN AMERICA

Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernandez echoed Morales’ denunciations of a coup, as did Mexico which has offered him asylum. “It’s a coup because the army requested the resignation of the president, and that violates the constitutional order of that country,” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.

In a redrawing of Latin America’s political landscape, the left has regained power in both Mexico and Argentina, though powerhouse Brazil still retains a right-wing government.

“A great day,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted, in apparent reference to events in Bolivia.

In Venezuela, opponents of Morales ally Nicolas Maduro also hailed the fall of the Bolivian leader whom they call a “dictator”, saying they hoped Maduro would be next.

Further afield, the United States urged civilian leaders to keep control. Russia backed Morales, accusing the opposition of violence and quashing dialogue.

Amid the chaos, prominent Bolivian opposition figure and academic Waldo Albarracin tweeted that his house had been set on fire by Morales supporters.

Another widely-shared video appeared to show people inside Morales’ own property with graffiti daubed on the walls.

“People are trying to cause chaos,” fretted Edgar Torrez, a 40-year-old business administrator in La Paz, saying politicians and criminals were all taking advantage of the situation.

TEMPORARY LEADER

Under Bolivian law, the head of the Senate would normally take over provisionally. However, Senate President Adriana Salvatierra also stepped down on Sunday.

Legislators were expected to meet on Monday to agree on an interim commission or legislator who would take temporary control, according to a constitutional lawyer.

“If I have the support of those who carried out this movement for freedom and democracy, I will take on the challenge, only to do what’s necessary to call transparent elections,” said senator Añez, who is constitutionally next in line to assume the presidency.

Añez flew into El Alto airport near La Paz on Monday, where another senator Arturo Murillo told reporters she was taken by an Air Force helicopter to a military academy, from where she was expected to travel to Congress.

“The military were waiting on the tarmac and they said it was safer to take them by helicopter,” he said. “I want to trust the military. I have my faith in the police.”

At a press conference, Mesa asked the police and mobilized civilian groups to guarantee the arrival of legislators across the political spectrum to the central Plaza Murillo to formalize Morales’ resignation and push forward new elections.

“Upon them (the lawmakers) rests the democracy and stability of the country,” he said.

Bolivia under Morales had one of the region’s strongest economic growth rates and its poverty rate was cut in half, but his determination to cling to power and seek a fourth term alienated many allies, even among indigenous communities.

(Reporting by Daniel Ramos, Gram Slattery, Monica Machicao in La Paz, Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Dave Graham and Miguel Gutierrez in Mexico City, Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Hugh Bronstein and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Andrew Cawthorne)

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saad al-Hariri resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister on Tuesday, declaring he had hit a “dead end” in trying to resolve a crisis unleashed by huge protests against the ruling elite and plunging the country deeper into turmoil.

The move by the leading Sunni politician points to rising political tensions that may complicate the formation of a new government able to tackle Lebanon’s worst economic crisis since its 1975-90 civil war.

The resignation of Hariri, who has been traditionally backed by the West and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, raises the stakes and pushes Lebanon into an unpredictable cycle. Lebanon could end up further under the sway of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, making it even harder to attract badly-needed foreign investment.

It also defies Hezbollah, which had wanted him to stay on. Hariri is seen as the focal point for Western and Gulf Arab aid to Lebanon, which is in dire need of financial support promised by these allies.

Hariri addressed the nation after a mob loyal to the Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah and Amal movements attacked and destroyed a protest camp set up by anti-government demonstrators in Beirut.

It was the most serious strife on the streets of Beirut since 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized control of the capital in a brief eruption of armed conflict with Lebanese adversaries loyal to Hariri and his allies.

Lebanon has been paralyzed by the unprecedented wave of protests against the rampant corruption of the political class.

“For 13 days the Lebanese people have waited for a decision for a political solution that stops the deterioration (of the economy). And I have tried, during this period, to find a way out, through which to listen to the voice of the people,” Hariri said.

“It is time for us to have a big shock to face the crisis,” he said. “To all partners in political life, our responsibility today is how we protect Lebanon and revive its economy.”

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, could now either accept Hariri’s resignation and begin consultations toward forming a new government, or ask him to rethink.

It took nine months to form the Hariri coalition cabinet that took office in January.

Some demonstrators vowed to stay in the street.

Protester Tarek Hijazi said the resignation was “a first step in building a patriotic democratic country, on the road to achieving the demands of the Oct. 17 uprising”.

The turmoil has worsened Lebanon’s acute economic crisis, with financial strains leading to a scarcity of hard currency and a weakening of the pegged Lebanese pound. Lebanese government bonds tumbled on the turmoil.

TENTS ON FIRE

On the streets of Beirut, black-clad men wielding sticks and pipes attacked the protest camp that has been the focal point of countrywide rallies against the elite.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, head of the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah, said last week that roads closed by protesters should be reopened and suggested the demonstrators were financed by its foreign enemies and implementing their agenda.

Smoke rose as some of the protester tents were set ablaze by Hezbollah and Amal supporters, who earlier fanned out in the downtown area of the capital shouting “Shia, Shia” in reference to themselves and cursing anti-government demonstrators.

“With our blood and lives we offer ourselves as a sacrifice for you Nabih!” they chanted in reference to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, head of the Amal Movement. “We heed your call, we heed your call, Nasrallah!” they chanted.

Security forces did not initially intervene to stop the assault, in which protesters were hit with sticks and were seen appealing for help as they ran, witnesses said. Tear gas was eventually fired to disperse the crowds.

Hariri did not refer to the violence in his address but urged all Lebanese to “protect civil peace and prevent economic deterioration, before anything else”.

France, which has supported Hariri, called on all Lebanese to help guarantee national unity.

LEBANESE POUND UNDER PRESSURE

Lebanon’s allies last year pledged $11 billion in financing to help it revive its economy, conditional on reforms that Hariri’s coalition government has largely failed to implement.

But there has been no sign of a rush to help.

A senior U.S. State Department official said last week this was not a situation where the Lebanese government should necessarily get a bailout, saying they should reform first.

Banks were closed for a 10th day along with schools and businesses.

Hariri last week sought to defuse popular discontent through a batch of reform measures agreed with other groups in his coalition government, including Hezbollah, to – among other things – tackle corruption and long-delayed economic reforms.

But with no immediate steps toward enacting these steps, they did not placate the demonstrators.

Central bank governor Riad Salameh called on Monday for a solution to the crisis in just days to restore confidence and avoid a future economic meltdown.

A black market for U.S. dollars has emerged in the last month or so. Three foreign currency dealers said a dollar cost 1,800 pounds on Tuesday, weakening from levels of 1,700 and 1,740 cited on Monday.

The official pegged rate is 1,507.5 pounds to the dollar.

“Even if the protesters leave the streets the real problem facing them is what they are going to do with the devaluation of the pound,” said Toufic Gaspard, an economist who has worked as an adviser to the IMF and to the Lebanese finance minister.

“A very large majority of the Lebanese income is in the Lebanese pound, their savings are in the Lebanese pound and their pension is in Lebanese, and it is certain it has already started to devalue,” he said.

(Reporting by Eric Knecht, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry, Lisa Barrington, Samia Nakhoul and Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Chile scrambles to clean up mess after weekend of chaos, violent protests

Chile scrambles to clean up mess after weekend of chaos, violent protests
By Dave Sherwood and Natalia A. Ramos Miranda

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean authorities scrambled on Monday to clear wreckage and re-open public transportation in the capital Santiago after a weekend of chaos in which at least seven people were killed amid violent clashes, arson attacks and looting in cities throughout Chile.

Several Chilean cities were engulfed by days of riots, along with peaceful protests, after a hike in public transport costs. The violence prompted President Sebastian Pinera to declare a state of emergency, placing the military in charge of security in the city of six million.

Transportation officials in Santiago brought in more than 400 buses to reinforce the city’s fleet Monday morning, and re-opened the downtown line of the metro providing east-west transportation across the city.

Most schools in the city closed, citing concerns of the safety of their workers and students.

Pinera extended the state of emergency late on Sunday night, saying “we are at war,” against vandals who had turned out in droves throughout the capital over the weekend.

Javier Iturriaga, the general in charge of Santiago’s security, said in a televised broadcast early Monday he had conducted an overflight of Santiago and was “very satisfied” with the situation. He said the military would nonetheless continue to provide security.

When asked by a reporter if the country was at war, as Pinera had said late Sunday, Iturriaga responded, “I’m not at war with anyone. I’m a happy man,” he said.

The metro, which suffered multiple arson attacks at stations throughout the city, was operating smoothly during the morning rush, albeit with many fewer people than on a typical Monday morning. Many businesses told their workers to stay home.

In downtown Santiago, street sweepers cleaned up broken glass, scrap metal and barricades that accumulated over several nights of protests.

Newly inked graffiti covered the face of nearly every building along many city blocks. Tear gas lingered in the air, forcing pedestrians to walk with faces covered.

Chile’s mining minister said on Sunday that the country’s mines operated normally through the weekend.

A union of workers at BHP’s Escondida copper mine, the world’s largest copper mine, told Reuters early on Monday it would walk off the job for at least a shift on Tuesday in a show of support for the demands of protesters.

Chile is the world’s top copper producer.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood, additional reporting by Fabian Cambero; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Hong Kong riot police confront protesters a day after violent clashes

Hong Kong riot police confront protesters a day after violent clashes
By Sarah Wu and Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of Hong Kong riot police confronted pro-democracy demonstrators on Monday night as they gathered to commemorate the three-month anniversary of an assault by more than 100 men on protesters, commuters and journalists.

The stand-off in the Yuen Long district, in which there were no immediate clashes or scuffles, followed violence on Sunday when tens of thousands marched through the Kowloon district and hardcore activists threw petrol bombs at police, torched entrances to metro stations and trashed hundreds of shops.

Under a policy that deems marches illegal unless they have a police permit, police were blocking the way to around 100 protesters trying to reach the Yuen Long metro station in Hong Kong’s northwest, and closed the station five hours early.

Protesters are angry that police did not act quickly enough to protect pro-democracy activists and commuters from the July 21 gang assault on them in the Hong Kong metro, and at what they say is a slow investigation into the incident.

Police have arrested 34 people and charged six.

At the time some believed the men had been hired to attack the group. Some politicians and activists have linked Hong Kong’s shadowy network of triad criminal gangs to political intimidation and violence in recent years, sometimes against pro-democracy activists and critics of Beijing.

Riot police marched down the street ordering protesters to disperse on Monday, warning they would fire tear gas. At one stage they rushed protesters and detained one person.

At one stage scuffles broke out between pro-Beijing supporters and protesters.

“INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION, JUSTICE”

Yim, a 42-year-old social worker, said he was in Yuen Long station on the night of the attack, adding it was important to continue to protest against such mob violence.

“If they really wanted to catch those attackers they could,” he said. “There were many people filmed that night but they’ve only arrested six people so far … we want an independent investigation and justice for this attack. The police are selectively enforcing the law.”

Hong Kong has been battered by more than 5 months of anti-government protests, and despite two weeks of calm, Sunday’s mass rally showed there was no end in sight to the unrest.

Embattled Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has rejected the demands of protesters and backed police using violence against them. Many say police have used excessive force against them, firing thousands of rounds of tear gas and hundreds of rubber bullets against brick- and petrol bomb-throwing activists.

Since the protests escalated in June, more than 2,600 people have been arrested, many under 18 years of age, while two people have been shot and many more injured.

Many people in Hong Kong are angry at what they see as mainland China’s attempts to limit the freedoms the city enjoys under the “one country, two systems” principle enshrined in its handover from Britain in 1997.

The protests pose the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power. Beijing has denied eroding Hong Kong’s freedoms and Xi has vowed to crush any attempt to split China.

Protesters are demanding universal suffrage, an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, amnesty for those charged, an end to labeling protesters as rioters, and the formal withdrawal of a China extradition bill which ignited the unrest.

(Reporting by Sarah Wu and Twinnie Siu; Writing by Farah Master and Michael Perry; Editing by Stephen Coates and Mark Heinrich)

China says troops will defend Hong Kong’s prosperity ahead of planned pro-democracy march

Military vehicles of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) pass Huanggang Port for a routine troop rotation in Hong Kong, August 29, 2019. Xinhua via REUTERS

By Donny Kwok and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – China brought fresh troops into Hong Kong on Thursday in what it described as a routine rotation of the garrison, days before protesters planned to hold a march calling for full democracy for the Chinese-ruled city after three months of demonstrations.

Chinese state media stressed the troop movement was routine and Asian and Western diplomats watching the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces in the former British colony had been expecting it.

Even so, the timing of the redeployment is likely to hit nerves in Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997 as a Special Administrative Region and has been hit by a wave of sometimes violent protests since June.

State news agency Xinhua said the military had completed a p rotation of air, land and maritime forces. It released pictures and footage of armored personnel carriers moving in convoy in Hong Kong before dawn, their lights flashing.

The PLA will make even greater contributions to maintaining Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, Xinhua cited its garrison in Hong Kong as saying.

Analysts estimate the garrison numbers between 8,000 and 10,000 troops split between bases in southern China and a network of former British army barracks in Hong Kong.

Trucks full of PLA soldiers rolled into Hong Kong within hours of the 1997 handover which ended British rule, raising questions about their role. They stage frequent drills but have seldom since been seen outside their bases.

Reuters witnesses on Thursday saw significantly more activity in and around the PLA’s Shek Kong military base in the rural New Territories than has been apparent in recent months.

About a dozen military jeeps inside the base could be seen just inside the base from a nearby public road, with several camouflaged soldiers milling about.

Four black civilian SUV’s drove between military buildings on a nearby hill road. Several larger green army trucks could be seen outside some buildings, flanked by guards.

Unrest in Hong Kong escalated in mid-June over a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts.

It has since evolved into calls for greater democracy under the “one country, two systems” formula, which guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent judiciary.

The protests have posed the biggest challenge for Communist Party rulers in Beijing since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

China has denounced the protests and accused the United States and Britain of interfering in its affairs in Hong Kong. It has sent clear warnings that forceful intervention is possible.

Hundreds of People’s Armed Police this month conducted exercises at a sports stadium in Shenzhen that borders Hong Kong a day after the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about their movements.

Troops are seen at the Shek Kong military base of People's Liberation Army (PLA) in New Territories, Hong Kong, China August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Staff

Troops are seen at the Shek Kong military base of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in New Territories, Hong Kong, China August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Staff

Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said the timing of the troop rotation was similar to that of previous years to “meet the demands of defending Hong Kong”.

The protests have rattled Hong Kong’s business community, with Cathay Pacific Airways <0293.HK> the biggest corporate casualty after Beijing demanded it suspend staff involved in, or who support, the demonstrations.

The American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) said Hong Kong faced an unprecedented test of the “one country, two systems” formula it has been ruled under since 1997.

“AmCham believes that Hong Kong still stands apart from its rivals in the region due to a combination of competitive advantages, including the rule of law, individual freedoms and its deep pool of talent,” it said in a statement.

“While these remain intact for now, they can no longer be taken for granted.”

‘CONFIDENT AND DETERMINED’

Defense Ministry spokesman Ren said the garrison troops would fulfill their obligation of defending Hong Kong according to the law and would follow the orders of the Communist Party.

They had the confidence, determination and capability to “protect and defend Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability,” he told a briefing in Beijing.

He did not answer a question on whether troop levels in Hong Kong had risen with the new deployment.

Ren said that the People’s Armed Police drills in Shenzhen were routine and that they conduct similar exercises every year.

The Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer of previous mass protests in Hong Kong, plans a rally from Hong Kong’s Central business district to Beijing’s main representative Liaison Office in the city on Saturday.

The group’s leader, Jimmy Sham, was attacked by two men armed with a knife and a baseball bat on Thursday, it said on its Facebook page. He was not hurt but a friend who tried to protect him suffered injuries to his arm.

Protesters targeted the Liaison Office, a symbol of Beijing’s rule, in July, daubing anti-China slogans on its walls and signs.

Police refused permission for the march on Thursday, but the group said it would appeal.

The protest would mark five years since Beijing ruled out universal suffrage for Hong Kong and comes as Hong Kong faces its first recession in a decade, with all its pillars of growth under stress.

Beijing is eager to quell the unrest before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, when Xi will oversee a military parade in Beijing.

(Reporting by Donny Kwok, Felix Tam, Greg Torode, Farah Master, Twinnie Siu, James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree in HONG KONG and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Nick Macfie, Editing by Robert Birsel and Angus MacSwan)

Hong Kong government warns of great danger after weekend of violence

An anti-extradition bill protester throws a Molotov cocktail as protesters clash with riot police during a rally to demand democracy and political reforms, at Tsuen Wan, in Hong Kong, China August 25. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Illegal violence is pushing Hong Kong to the brink of great danger, the city government said on Monday, after a weekend of clashes that included the first gun-shot and the arrest of 86 people, the youngest just 12.

Police fired water cannon and volleys of tear gas in running battles with protesters who threw bricks and petrol bombs on Sunday, the second day of weekend clashes in the Chinese-ruled city.

Six officers drew their pistols and one officer fired a warning shot into the air, police said in a statement, adding that 215 rounds of tear gas and 74 rubber bullets were fired over the two days.

“The escalating illegal and violent acts of radical protesters are not only outrageous, they also push Hong Kong to the verge of a very dangerous situation,” the government said in a statement.

The protests began in mid-June over a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong people to be sent to mainland China for trial.

But the demonstrations have evolved over 12 straight weeks into a broad demand for greater democracy in the financial hub that was promised a high degree of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” formula when it was handed to China by colonial ruler Britain in 1997.

More demonstrations are planned in the days and weeks ahead, including a rally at Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways <0293.HK> headquarters on Wednesday to protest against perceived “white terror”, a term used to describe anonymous acts that create a climate of fear.

Cathay has emerged as the biggest corporate casualty of the protests after China demanded it suspend staff involved in, or who supported, the anti-government demonstrations that have plunged the city into its biggest crisis since 1997.

On Saturday, activists threw petrol bombs and bricks in the gritty industrial district of Kwun Tong, on the east of the Kowloon peninsula. Some protesters cut down “smart” lamp posts equipped with surveillance cameras.

An anti-extradition bill protester carries a barricade for blocking the road during a protest in Hong Kong, China, August 25, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

An anti-extradition bill protester carries a barricade for blocking the road during a protest in Hong Kong, China, August 25, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

GRAVE CHALLENGE

The protests pose the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012, with his government keen to quell the unrest ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct 1.

Protesters again adopted cat-and-mouse tactics on Sunday evening, gathering then quickly dispersing, only to reappear in other places.

They also set up barricades to block some roads, following a largely peaceful rally earlier in the day.

Police said the 86 arrested people were aged 12 to 52, and they were suspected of offences including unlawful assembly, possession of offensive weapons and assaulting police officers.

Twenty-one officers were injured in the violence, they said.

The weekend clashes marked a return to violent unrest after days of calmer demonstrations.

The protests have occasionally caused serious disruption including forcing the closure of the airport.

China has denounced the protests, warned of the damage to Hong Kong’s economy and complained of outside interference.

It has also sent a clear warning that forceful intervention is possible, with paramilitary forces holding drills in Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong in mainland China.The protesters say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement under which Hong Kong returned to China with the promise of freedoms, not enjoyed on the mainland, for 50 years.

But the turmoil is taking a toll.

The world’s biggest equity deal this year was to unfold in Hong Kong later this month but it has been put on hold. Banks are issuing unprecedented profit warnings, while hotels and restaurants are half-empty.

Several major conferences and trade fairs have been postponed and economists say retail sales could drop by 20%-30% this year.

Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index <.HSI> closed down 1.9% on Monday, in line with regional markets, as the latest salvo in the Sino-U.S. trade war rattled investors.

(Reporting By Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok and Noah Sin; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

France braces for trouble, Macron to address ‘yellow vest’ anger

A trash bin burns as youths and high school students attend a demonstration to protest against the French government's reform plan, in Paris, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

By Richard Lough and Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) – France hunkered down for another wave of potentially violent protests on Saturday as embattled President Emmanuel Macron planned to address the nation next week over public fury at the high cost of living, senior allies said.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said the three-week-old “yellow vest” revolt had “created a monster” and vowed police would have no tolerance for violence, with much of Paris in lockdown and tens of thousands of police deployed nationwide.

Named after the fluorescent safety vests that all French motorists must carry, the protesters are billing their planned action on Saturday as “Act IV” of worst unrest seen in the capital since the 1968 student riots.

Castaner warned that radicals would likely again infiltrate the protest movement – a backlash against high living costs but also, increasingly, a revolt against Macron himself, including his perceived loftiness and reforms favoring a moneyed elite.

“These last three weeks have created a monster,” Castaner told reporters. “Our security forces will respond with firmness and I will have no tolerance for anyone who capitalizes on the distress of our citizens.”

Some 89,000 policemen will be on duty nationwide to forestall a repeat of last Saturday’s destructive mayhem in exclusive central districts of Paris. Police in Paris will be backed up by armored vehicles equipped to clear barricades.

Senior allies of Macron said the president would address the nation early next week. Navigating his biggest crisis since being elected 18 months ago, Macron has left it largely to his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, to deal in public with the turmoil and offer concessions.

But the 40-year-old is under mounting pressure to speak more fully as his administration tries to regain the initiative following three weeks of unrest in the G7 nation.

“The President will speak early next week. I think this is what the French people want, they want answers,” Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne told Sud Radio on Friday.

Macron has not spoken in public since he condemned last Saturday’s disturbances while at the G20 summit in Argentina and opposition leaders accused him of turning the Elysee Palace into a bunker where had taken cover.

“Is Macron still in Argentina? He must surely have an opinion,” hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said on Twitter on Tuesday.

“The president himself must speak,” main opposition conservative Republicans leader Laurent Wauquiez told Europe 1 radio on Thursday.

Yellow vests are hung outside windows of an apartment building in support of the "yellow vests" movement in Marseille, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Yellow vests are hung outside windows of an apartment building in support of the “yellow vests” movement in Marseille, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

“FORGOTTEN FRANCE”

After the Dec. 1 riots in central Paris and sometimes violent demonstrations in dozens of other cities and towns across France, the government offered a rush of sweeteners to soothe public anger.

It started by scrapping next year’s planned hikes to fuel taxes, the first major U-turn of Macron’s presidency and costing the Treasury 4 billion euros ($4.5 billion).

But protesters want Macron to go further to help hard-pressed households, including an increase to the minimum wage, lower taxes, higher salaries, cheaper energy, better retirement provisions, and even Macron’s resignation.

But, mindful of France’s deficit and not wanting to flout EU rules, Macron will have scant wriggle room for more concessions.

The “gilets Jaunes” (yellow vest) movement remains amorphous and hard to define, with a rapidly shifting agenda and internal divisions.

One faction, which dubs itself the “Free Yellow Vests”, called on protesters not to travel to Paris on Saturday but criticized Macron for refusing to hold direct talks.

“We appeal for calm, for respect of public property and the security forces,” Benjamin Cauchy declared in front of the National Assembly. His group are seen as moderates within the broader movement.

“The forgotten France is the France of the regions and it is in the regions that France will show peacefully their anger,” Cauchy said.

Youths and high school students attend a demonstration to protest against the French government's reform plan, in Paris, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Youths and high school students attend a demonstration to protest against the French government’s reform plan, in Paris, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

“SMASHING THINGS UP”

The Eiffel Tower, opera house, and Louvre are among dozens of museums and tourist sites in Paris that will close on Saturday to pre-empt feared attacks by yellow vest militants.

Luxury boutiques and restaurants in fancy neighborhoods and near the presidential palace erected barricades and boarded up windows. Department stores Galerie Lafayette and Printemps said they would not open in the capital on Saturday.

The trouble is jeopardizing a timid economic recovery in France just as the Christmas holiday season kicks off. Retailers have lost about 1 billion euros in revenue since the protests erupted, the retail federation said.

On the French stock market, retailers, airlines and hoteliers suffered their worst week in months.

Patrick Delmas, 49, will shut his “Le Monte Carlo” bar next to the Champs Elysees on Saturday, blaming hoodlums from anarchist and anti-capitalist groups, as well as the yellow vest movement’s violent fringe.

“We have lost 60 percent of business over the last 15 days,” he said. “The problem is all those people who arrive with the sole intention of smashing things up.”

(Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Dominique Vidalon, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Richard Lough and Marine Pennetier; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Macron administration warns of ‘great violence’ in Paris from hard core ‘yellow vests’

Trash bins burn as youths and high-school students clash with police during a demonstration against the French government's reform plan in Marseille, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

By Richard Lough and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – French authorities warned another wave of “great violence” and rioting could be unleashed in Paris this weekend by a hardcore of ‘yellow vest’ protesters, as senior ministers sought to defuse public anger with conciliatory languages on taxes.

Despite capitulating this week over plans for higher fuel taxes that inspired the nationwide revolt, President Emmanuel Macron has struggled to quell the anger that led to the worst street unrest in central Paris since 1968.

Rioters torched cars, vandalized cafes, looted shops and sprayed anti-Macron graffiti across some of Paris’s most affluent districts, even defacing the Arc de Triomphe. Scores of people were hurt and hundreds arrested in battles with police.

French police stand guard as youth and high school students burn a trash container during a protest against the French government's reform plan, in Bordeaux, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

French police stand guard as youth and high school students burn a trash container during a protest against the French government’s reform plan, in Bordeaux, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

An official in Macron’s office said intelligence suggested that some protesters would come to the capital this Saturday “to vandalize and to kill.”

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said 65,000 security personnel would be deployed across the country on that day to keep the peace.

In a bid to defuse the three-week crisis, Philippe had told parliament late on Wednesday that he was scrapping the fuel-tax increases planned for 2019, having announced a six-month suspension the day before.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told a conference he was prepared to bring forward tax-cutting plans and that he wanted workers’ bonuses to be tax-free.

But he added: “In this case, it must go hand-in-hand with a decrease in spending.”

He also said France would impose a tax on big internet firms in 2019 if there was no consensus on a European Union-wide levy, seeking to appeal to the “yellow vests'” anti-business sentiment.

SOCCER MATCHES CANCELED

The threat of more violence poses a security nightmare for the authorities, who make a distinction between peaceful ‘yellow vest’ protesters and violent groups, anarchists and looters from the deprived suburbs who they say have infiltrated the movement.

On Facebook groups and across social media, the yellow vests are calling for an “Act IV”, a reference to what would be a fourth weekend of disorder.

“France is fed up!! We will be there in bigger numbers, stronger, standing up for French people. Meet in Paris on Dec. 8,” read one group’s banner.

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer urged people to stay at home during the coming weekend. Security sources said the government was considering using troops currently deployed on anti-terrorism patrols to protect public buildings.

Several top-league soccer matches on Saturday have been canceled and the Louvre museum said it and others were awaiting word from Paris officials on whether to close their doors.

The protests, named after the fluorescent jackets French motorists are required to keep in their cars, erupted in November over the squeeze on household budgets caused by fuel taxes. Demonstrations swiftly grew into a broad, sometimes-violent rebellion against Macron, with no formal leader.

Their demands are diverse and include lower taxes, higher salaries and Macron’s resignation.

France’s hard-left CGT trade union on Thursday called on its energy industry workers to walk out for a 48 hours from Dec. 13, saying it wanted to join forces with the yellow vests. The movement, with no formal leader, has so far not associated itself with any political party or trade union.

A French riot policeman stands next to a burning car as youth and high school students protest against the French government's reform plan, in Nantes, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

A French riot policeman stands next to a burning car as youth and high school students protest against the French government’s reform plan, in Nantes, France, December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

STREET POLITICS

The fuel-tax volte-face was the first major U-turn of Macron’s 18-month presidency.

The unrest has exposed the deep-seated resentment among non-city dwellers that Macron is out-of-touch with the hard-pressed middle class and blue-collar laborers. They see the 40-year-old former investment banker as closer to big business.

Trouble is also brewing elsewhere for Macron. Teenage students on Thursday blocked access to more than 200 high schools across the country, burning garbage bins and setting alight a car in the western city of Nantes.

Meanwhile, farmers who have long complained that retailers are squeezing their margins and are furious over a delay to the planned rise in minimum food prices, and truckers are threatening to strike from Sunday.

Le Maire said France was no longer spared from the wave of populism that has swept across Europe.

“It’s only that in France, it’s not manifesting itself at the ballot box, but in the streets.”

(Reporting by Richard Lough and Marine Pennetier; additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, Michel Rose and Myriam Rivet; Editing by Toby Chopra)