PARIS: One of the leaders of the “yellow vest” demonstrations in France was detained by police in Paris, signaling a harder line from the government that sparked a wave of criticism from opponents on Thursday.
Eric Drouet — who already faces a trial for carrying a weapon at a previous protest — was arrested late Wednesday for organizing an unauthorized protest on the Champs-Elysees avenue. He was released Thursday afternoon.
Speaking to reporters after his release, Drouet said he had been on his way to a restaurant with four others when they were picked up.
“I wasn’t wearing a yellow vest, just walking on the pavement,” he said, calling the arrest “incomprehensible”.
Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire defended the arrest, saying: “It’s called respecting the rule of law.” “It’s normal that when you break the laws of the republic, you face the consequences,” he added.
Under French law, protest organizers are required to inform authorities of the location at least three days in advance, but “yellow vests” have routinely flouted this since their often spontaneous demonstrations began in late November.
Far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen accused the government of “systematic violation of the political rights of opponents”, while one of her party’s top men, Wallerand de Saint-Just, said Drouet had become “a hero, a martyr”.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the hard-left France Unbowed party, also lashed out at Drouet’s detention.
“Again Eric Drouet arrested, why? Abuse of power. A politicized police targeting and harassing the leaders of the yellow vest movement,” Melenchon tweeted.
Drouet, a 33-year-old truck driver from a town south of Paris who has closely cropped hair and a beard, often appears on television as an “apolitical” spokesman for the “yellow vest” movement. He has been criticized for peddling conspiracy theories online and accused of voting for Le Pen in elections last year, which he has denied.