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Dug in at roundabouts, yellow vest protesters keep up fight

SENLIS, France (AP) — The roundabout outside Senlis in the northern Oise region close to the busiest of France's highways is more than just asphalt with cars and trucks circling around it. With its makeshift grocery, camp beds and community spirit, the large central island about 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of Paris has been transformed over the past two months into an encampment where dozens of yellow vest protesters gather day in, day out to organize their long-standing fight against the French government.

Like the reflective fluorescent safety vests, occupied roundabouts have become a trademark of the protest movement shaking up France that was initially triggered by the rising cost of fuel but has since morphed into a broader anti-government revolt.

Despite a call last month from French authorities to free the traffic circles, and the 10 killed in road accidents since the protests started, yellow vest activists have continued to occupy roundabouts. Before a ninth straight weekend of planned protests in Paris and across France, demonstrators in Senlis are adamant they are digging in for the long haul.

"We've got all we need to hold a siege," said Nicole, a 64-year-old retiree in charge of running the grocery. Most of the people interviewed by The Associated Press this week in Senlis declined to give their full names for fear of being identified by police. At least two of them have been arrested and detained during previous demonstrations in Paris that have often turned violent.

Fearing more incidents, France authorities are preparing to deploy around 80,000 officers across the country on Saturday. Nicknamed "Mini Little Mouse" by other protesters, Nicole cooks the fresh vegetables donated by yellow vest supporters, makes coffee for all and ensures that the pasta and rice are properly stored in the wooden shelves in the makeshift building.

For her and many protesters, money is the biggest problem. "They (the government) took 30 euros from my pension, this is not normal," she said, her voice drowned out by the noise of the truck drivers driving around the roundabout and honking in support of the protest. "I've worked for 41 years. I'm not robbing anyone. I'm demanding my due."

Nicole says her income is about 800 euros a month. It's a frosty morning across much of France but the vibes are warm on the roundabout. Nicole and her companions have set up a fire pit where they can stand around and enjoy the warmth of the flames. After hanging on through the festive season, they say they won't leave the roundabout unless President Emmanuel Macron's government gives in to their demands.

"Have a look, we've got a petanque court," said Michel, a 69-year-old retiree, referring to the boules sports very popular in the country. "It feels good here. We call this place the yellow vest camping. Come back in July, we'll have a swimming pool!"

On a more serious note, 29-year-old Tristan says he would be more than happy to return home. He has been involved in protests since Nov. 17 and has been banned from traveling to Paris during weekends to attend demonstrations in the French capital after he was arrested in possession of a gas mask.

Employed in the construction industry, Tristan works weekends, does frequent nights shifts and earns extra money through overtime. He said he was pleased by Macron's decision to abolish taxes on overtime pay, but wants to continue his protest for others.

"I'm fighting for my grandmother who is struggling to make ends meet, for my sister who has three children and can't get back to work because she is being told she will make less money than what she makes today, for my mother who is being forced to leave her apartment, and for my friend who is on the minimum wage and can't make it," he said.

Facing a plethora of demands ranging from the re-introduction of France's wealth tax, called the ISF, on the country's richest people to the implementation of popular votes that allow citizens to propose new laws, Macron has so far struggled to find a solution to the crisis.

"He's doing nothing in the short term," complained Claude, who is currently unemployed after being fired by a major European transport company. "In December when he spoke on TV, if he had announced the re-introduction of the ISF, it would have been a strong signal."

Macron's latest idea of a three-month national debate as a way for the government to hear and to respond to the movement's central complaints is being mocked on the roundabout. "I don't believe in this big debate," said Michel, a 61-year-old wearing a hat with the acronym RIC, for Citizens' Initiative Referendum, the popular vote he wants to be introduced. "Getting the RIC would be wonderful."

Many of those protesting in Senlis said they feel neglected and abandoned by politicians. Over the years, they have voted across the political spectrum, from Marine Le Pen's extreme right party to the far left. And every time, they have been disappointed.

"The RIC could be a solution," Tristan said. "I don't want Macron to leave. It would not change anything. What we want is to be listened to, not just every five years when the presidential election takes place."

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