'Gilets Jaunes' (Yellow Vests) protesters gather in central Paris to mark the one year anniversary of the protest movement, in Paris, France, 17 November 2019. November 17 marks one year to the day since the Yellow Vest movement started their weekly protest action in France.First anniversary of the Yellow Vests protest movement, Paris, France - 17 Nov 2019

PARIS — French retailers are bracing for countrywide strikes on Thursday that risk disrupting business in the run-up to the crucial holiday shopping season — only a year after “gilets jaunes,” or yellow vest, protests wreaked havoc on the capital.

“We will be impacted — our neighborhood will be secured as it was during the yellow vest protests,” said Benjamin Cymerman, president of the Comité du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, an association of retailers in the tony Saint-Honoré neighborhood of Paris, which includes stores for Hermès, Burberry, Gucci, Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Valentino, Boucheron and Messika.

Several million people are expected to take part in the Dec. 5 strike, a date set by unions that are protesting the government’s pending pension reform. Schools will be closed and the national train operator SNCF warned that it expected traffic to be reduced to 10 percent of normal levels. Air France canceled 30 percent of flights in the country, and riders of the Paris metro were warned through loudspeakers Tuesday to expect serious disruption Thursday. 

Concerned that protests could turn violent, local government authorities have ordered stores and restaurants to close along the main boulevards connecting the major squares and train stations in the eastern parts of Paris, where marches are expected to pass through, and banned yellow vest protests in the neighborhood below the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. A federation of unions expressed concern about ordered closures, warning that if commercial activity is affected beyond Dec. 5, it could cause irreparable damage to businesses, given the importance of the period, according to Agence France-Presse.

The country’s textile sector has already suffered from a lackluster year, with sales of clothing and textiles in France down 1.3 percent in value terms in the first nine months of the year, according to the Institut Français de la Mode.

Beyond the immediate disruption to transport, which will make it difficult for employees to get to work, retailers are concerned that demonstrations could turn violent and spook deep-pocketed tourists from abroad.

Tourism generates a lot of business in Paris, listed as the second most visited city in Europe, according to the latest “Top 100 City Destinations” report by Euromonitor International.

“We are closely linked to tourism — we’re hoping there won’t be scenes of violence that could impact our international image and weigh on the tourist sector,” added Cymerman, who estimated that tourism represents between 40 and 70 percent of sales for retailers in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, retailers here plan to take a business-as-usual approach and open their stores.

“We’re taking the view that it’ll be a normal day, we have to be there and we’ll be working,” said Cymerman.

Last year’s yellow vest protests — which have sporadically carried over into this year — were sparked by a planned increase in fuel tax that added to frustrations over declining economic conditions. Protests took a violent turn, erupting into street battles that pitted demonstrators against police and transforming the Avenue des Champs Élysées into a war zone, with burning cars, broken shop windows and looting, and forcing the closures of department stores around the city.

While the French capital returned to normal, the yellow vests were back last month to mark the movement’s first anniversary, taking to the Place d’Italie, and prompting the closure of a local mall, with the involvement of the so-called black blocs, a group of anarchists and anticapitalist vandals.

Also looming large in retailers’ minds are protests that swept France in 1995, when a government austerity plan caused walkouts across sectors, in a movement that was compared to unrest of 1968.

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