PARIS (Dispatches) -- Protesters clashed with police in Paris and other cities Saturday as thousands turned out for new rallies against French President Emmanuel Macron, with dozens arrested as officials vowed a crackdown on the violence that has marred the demonstrations since November.
The "yellow vest" marches began calmly amid a heavy police deployment of some 80,000 officers nationwide, with protesters singing the "Marseillaise" national anthem and holding signs including "Insecurity is not a job".
But scores of protesters later clashed with riot police after arriving at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, prompting volleys of tear gas and water cannon as security forces prevented them from reaching the Champs-Elysees.
Nearly 60 people had been arrested in the capital, police said, alongside dozens more elsewhere including the central city of Bourges, the site of another major rally.
The interior ministry said there were 32,000 protesters nationwide as of 2:00 pm (1300 GMT), including 8,000 in Paris. That was above the 26,000 counted at the same time last week.
Many of the central districts of the capital were on lockdown for the ninth straight Saturday of protests, which have picked up steam after a holiday lull.
A few hundred protesters also clashed with police in the historic centre of Bourges, where nearly 5,000 people gathered as organizers sought to draw more participants from areas far from Paris.
Signs said "Macron resign!" and "France is angry," while police said 18 people had been detained.
In the well-heeled racehorsing town of Chantilly just north of Paris, 1,000 or so protesters marched through the centre before descending on the hippodrome where they delayed the start of a race, local media said.
Sporadic skirmishes were also reported in the southern town of Nimes involving some 1,000 protesters.
The demonstrations also spilt over the border into eastern Belgium late on Friday, where one of around 25 protesters manning a blockade died after being hit by a truck, Belgian media reported.
Officials had warned of bigger and more violent protests than last week, when demonstrators rammed a forklift truck through the main doors of a government ministry in Paris.
But many demonstrators pointed to social media footage of a police officer repeatedly striking an unarmed man on the ground during a protest last week in Toulon, accusing the police of excessive use of force.
The yellow vest movement, which began as protests over high fuel taxes, has snowballed into a wholesale rejection of Macron and his policies, which are seen as favoring the wealthy at the expense of rural and small-town France.
Macron has already unveiled a 10-billion-euro ($11.5 billion) financial relief package for low earners, and axed the planned fuel tax hike.
But the public consultations risk being hobbled by record levels of distrust towards politicians and representatives of the state.
A poll by the Cevipof political sciences institute released Friday showed 77 percent of respondents thought politicians inspired "distrust", "disgust" or "boredom".
Deadly Blast in Paris
The day began with a huge explosion as central Paris was under security lockdown.
Two French firefighters and a Spanish citizen died and nearly people 50 were injured in a gas explosion that gutted the ground floor of a building in a central Paris shopping district.
"As firemen were looking for a gas leak in the building, a dramatic explosion took place," Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said, adding that one of the firemen had been buried under debris for several hours.
In recent years, France has suffered a string of deadly militant attacks in Paris, Nice, Marseille and elsewhere but authorities quickly ruled out foul play.
"A this stage we can say it (the gas blast) is clearly an accident," Paris prosecutor Remi Heitz told reporters.
A police source said the explosion tore apart a bakery on the rue Trevise and witnesses said the force of the blast shattered nearby storefronts and rocked buildings hundreds of meters away.