Police fired tear gas at demonstrators as a convoy protesting COVID-19 restrictions breached their defences and drove into central Paris on Saturday, snarling traffic around the Arc de Triomphe and on the Champs-Élysées.
Protesters in cars, camper vans, tractors and other vehicles had converged on Paris from Lille, Perpignan, Nice and other cities late on Friday, despite warnings from Paris authorities that they would be barred from entering the capital.
Inspired by horn-blaring demonstrations in Canada, dozens of vehicles slipped through the police cordon, impeding traffic around the 19th-century arch and the top of the boutique-lined Champs-Élysées, a magnet for tourists.
Inside the city's limits, motorists in the so-called Freedom Convoy waved tri-colour flags and honked in defiance of the police ban.
On the Champs-Élysées, clouds of tear gas swirled through the terraces of bars and restaurants.
Riot police also threw tear gas grenades to keep order at an authorized street protest where demonstrators, including some "Yellow Vests," railed against French President Emmanuel Macron's coronavirus vaccine pass rules and the cost of living.
Police used tear gas into the evening on the Champs-Élysées as sporadic scuffles continued. One person who collapsed on the sidewalk was brought to hospital for checks, police said.
France requires people to show proof of vaccination to enter public places such as cafés, restaurants and museums, with a negative test no longer being sufficient for unvaccinated people.
"We can't take the vaccine pass anymore," said Nathalie Galdeano, who came from southwest France by bus to participate in the protests.
Hundreds of tickets handed out
Police said that they had arrested 54 people, handed out 337 tickets by mid-afternoon and had stopped 500 vehicles that were trying to get into Paris in the morning. The Interior Ministry said about 32,000 people participated in protests nationwide, including 7,600 in Paris.
Less than two months from a presidential election, Macron's government is eager to keep protests from spiralling into large-scale demonstrations like the anti-government "Yellow Vest" protests of 2018.
That movement began as a protest against fuel taxes and grew into a broader revolt that saw some of the worst street violence in decades and tested Macron's authority.
Grievances expressed by protesters in the vehicle convoy extend beyond COVID-19 restrictions, with anger simmering over a perceived fall in standards of living amid surging inflation.
Police had mobilized more than 7,000 officers, set up checkpoints and deployed armoured personnel carriers and water cannon trucks in preparation for the protests.
Separately police also said they had arrested five protesters in southern Paris in possession of sling shots, hammers, knives and gas masks.
Canadian truckers protesting a vaccine mandate for cross-border traffic have paralyzed parts of Ottawa, the capital, since late January and blocked U.S.-Canada crossing points.
Police in Canada began clearing protesters blocking a key bridge linking Canada and the United States on Saturday.
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