PARIS (AP) — Protesters angry over pandemic restrictions drove toward Paris in scattered convoys of camper vans, cars and trucks Friday in an effort to blockade the French capital, despite a police ban.
From the Mediterranean coast to the northern city of Lille, the protesters organized their “freedom convoys” online, galvanized in part by truckers who have blockaded Canada’s capital and blocked border crossings. The French action has no single leader or goal, and comes as months of protests against French government vaccination rules have been waning.
Paris region authorities deployed more than 7,000 police officers to tollbooths and other key sites to try to prevent a blockade. They threatened heavy fines and other punishments for those who defy the protest ban, which authorities said was necessary to prevent “risk to public order.”
Railing against France’s vaccination pass required to enter restaurants and many other venues, protesters waved French flags from their car windows and honked at onlookers. The convoys sought to avoid police detection by traveling local roads instead of the major highways leading into Paris.
It was unclear whether they would be able to enter Paris and join protests planned in the city Saturday.
Some of the French protesters are threatening to continue their journey to Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the European Union, and to meet up there with drivers from other countries on Monday.
Belgian authorities also banned the threatened blockade, and a similar convoy planned for Friday in Vienna was canceled after authorities banned it.
In France, dozens of cars left from a parking lot in the eastern city of Strasbourg on Friday, as scores of sympathizers brought them food and water and extra fuel, and cheered them on. A similar-sized group left from Lille, where one protester brandished a Canadian flag alongside the French tricolor.
Patrick Proisy, mayor of nearby Faches-Thumesnil, from the far-left Defiant France party, told The Associated Press: “I have come here in moral solidarity to show them that there are also elected officials who support them and show them that what they are trying to defend is good.”
Members of the convoy were wary of journalists or hesitant to speak on the record, out of fear of arrest. They embody a mix of causes.
Some sported yellow vests, a symbol of a French protest movement against perceived economic injustice which largely fizzled in 2019 after the government responded to some of the participants’ concerns.
Some far-right and other figures in France appeared to be trying to capitalize on the global attention to the Canadian truckers to revitalize their own protest movements, which represent a small minority of French citizens.
One Lille protester who gave his name only as Cedric said he wasn’t that concerned anymore about virus rules but was joining the convoy for political reasons — notably a wish to see President Emmanuel Macron unseated in the April presidential election.
Another, named Ludivine, said she’s “against the vaccine pass of course, and all QR codes, whatever they are,” referring to the digital codes on the virus passes that have become a fixture of daily life in France.
Some chanted anti-capitalist slogans, or demanded more government aid.
The French protesters have shared images of truckers in Canada who have blockaded border crossings and paralyzed downtown Ottawa while demanding an end to their country’s COVID-19 restrictions, including a rule for all truckers entering Canada to be fully vaccinated.
France has a very high vaccination rate, and the government is gradually easing mask requirements and other virus restrictions. However, after French hospitals and older adults were hit hard by repeated infection surges, Health Minister Olivier Veran said Thursday that it was too early for people to let down their guard.
Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic