Around three hundred vehicles taking part in a Canada-style protest convoy against Covid regulations arrived in Lille, northern France, on Sunday en route to Brussels, where officials have already banned a demonstration called for Monday.

The flag-bearing trek north came after 97 people were arrested in Paris on Saturday as thousands of demonstrators defied a ban on trying to block traffic, with 81 still in custody early Sunday.

The convoy, while smaller than the nearly 3,000 vehicles that converged on the capital from cities across France, stopped Sunday at the parking lot of a shopping mall outside Lille, just south of the Belgian border.

"We'll go to Brussels to try to block it, to fight against this policy of permanent control," said Jean-Pierre Schmit, an unemployed 58-year-old who came from Toulouse.

For Sandrine, 45, who came from Lyon, the government's response to the Covid crisis had revealed that "we're losing our freedoms bit by bit, in an insidious way."

Around 100 drivers defied the protest ban to snarl traffic on the Champs-Elysees on Saturday.
Around 100 drivers defied the protest ban to snarl traffic on the Champs-Elysees on Saturday. AFP / Sameer Al-DOUMY

The self-proclaimed "freedom convoy" of cars, trucks and campervans is one of several worldwide inspired by a truckers' standoff with authorities in Canada.

In France, the demonstrators took aim in particular at the "vaccine pass" required to enter restaurants, cafes and many other public venues implemented as part of President Emmanuel Macron's inoculation drive.

But participants have also cited rising fuel and energy costs, an echo of the "yellow vest" grievances that forced Macron to announce a series of tax cuts and other concessions.

More than 100 vehicles managed to converge on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris despite a heavy police deployment to keep them out of the city, with security forces using teargas to disperse protesters in scenes reminiscent of the "yellow vest" clashes of 2018 and 2019.

Prosecutors said Jerome Rodrigues, a leader of the "yellow vest" protest movement, was one of the people detained in the Saturday protests, though his lawyer denied any organisational role and called him a "political prisoner."

Participants in the so-called "Freedom convoy" near Vimy in northern France on Sunday.
Participants in the so-called "Freedom convoy" near Vimy in northern France on Sunday. AFP / THOMAS LO PRESTI

The Paris police department also said an internal inquiry had been opened after a video emerged on social media showing an officer pointing his gun at a driver.

The demonstrations, with convoys setting out from cities across France, come two months before presidential elections in which Macron is expected to seek re-election.

On Friday, Macron said he understood the "fatigue" after two years of the pandemic.

"This fatigue also leads to anger. I understand it... But I call for the utmost calm," he told the Ouest-France newspaper.

The government has said it plans to relax face mask mandates by February 28, and is hoping to end the vaccine pass requirement by late March or early April.

Some 24,000 more people demonstrated in other parts of the country Saturday, the authorities said, including in the southern city of Montpellier, where radical fringe activists broke the glass facades of two banks.