French “yellow vest” demonstrators clashed with riot police in Paris on Saturday in the latest round of protests against President Emmanuel Macron, but the city appeared to be escaping the large-scale destruction of a week earlier due to heavy security.
Protesters nonetheless set fire to cars, burned barricades and smashed windows in pockets of violence across the city centre, clad in their emblematic luminous safety jackets, as armoured vehicles rolled through the streets.
Shouts of “Macron, resign” mingled with tear gas as thousands gathered on the famous Champs-Elysees avenue, and thick plumes of black smoke from fires rose high into the sky. Numerous shops and a Starbucks cafe were ransacked.
“The weather is crap and so is this government,” a handful of protesters chanted as light rain began to fall.
But the outbreaks of violence were a far cry from the destruction and looting of a week earlier, when some 200 cars were torched in the worst rioting in Paris in decades.
The government had vowed “zero tolerance” for anarchist, far-right or other trouble-makers seeking to wreak further havoc at protests that have sparked the deepest crisis of Macron’s presidency.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe congratulated police for the operation, and promised Macron would address the protesters’ concerns over rising living costs.
“The dialogue has begun and it must continue,” Philippe said in a televised statement. “The president will speak, and will propose measures that will feed this dialogue.”
Police reinforcements were boosted to 8,000 across the city, with armoured vehicles deployed in Paris for the first time ever.
More than 650 protesters were detained in the capital, many of them stopped as they arrived at train stations or meeting points carrying hammers, petanque balls and other potential missiles.
Shops along the Champs-Elysees and central department stores stayed shut with their windows boarded up to avoid looting.
The Eiffel Tower, major museums and many metro stations were also closed as parts of Paris went on effective lockdown.
– Protests beyond France –
“I have two children. I’m fighting for them and just to be able to live a decent life,” said Tony Vella, a 32-year-old builder from the Paris suburbs.
Officials estimated that a total 125,000 “yellow vests” turned out nationwide throughout the day, down from 136,000 last week.
A young man was suffered a serious hand injury during clashes with police in the southwestern city of Bordeaux, apparently by an anti-riot grenade.
In Paris, health authorities said 60 people had been admitted to hospital, mostly with minor injuries.
The movement has spread beyond France’s borders, with around 400 arrested at a “yellow vest” protest in Brussels on Saturday and peaceful demonstrations taking place in Dutch towns.
The French protests also attracted the attention of US President Donald Trump, who said they were evidence of a lack of public support for pro-environment policies like the Paris climate agreement.
“The Paris Agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris. Protests and riots all over France,” Trump tweeted.
The demonstrations are not linked to the climate agreement.
People began blockading roads on November 17 over rising fuel prices — partly due to taxes aimed at helping France to transition to a greener economy.
But the demonstrations have since swollen into a broad movement against ex-banker Macron, whom the protesters accuse of favouring the rich.
Nationwide, 89,000 police officers were on duty in towns, cities and on numerous motorways which caused havoc on France’s road network, including a blockade of a border crossing with Spain.
Police also clashed with protesters in the southwestern city of Toulouse, though elsewhere, such as Marseille, the demonstrations were peaceful.
Nearly 1,400 people were detained across France, according to Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.
– Macron’s U-turn –
Macron this week gave in to some of the protesters’ demands for measures to help the poor and struggling middle classes, including scrapping a planned increase in fuel taxes.
That climbdown marked a major departure for a president who had vowed, unlike predecessors, not to be swayed by mass protests.
But many of the “yellow vests” are holding out for more.
A popular demand is a reversal of his decision to slash taxes on France’s wealthiest in a bid to boost investment and create jobs — something he has so far ruled out.
The policy, along with hikes on pensioners’ taxes, cuts in housing allowances and a string of comments deemed insensitive to ordinary workers, has led critics to label Macron a “president of the rich”.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen — who is backed by some protesters from “forgotten” provincial France, but by no means all — called for Macron to “recognise society’s suffering and deliver immediate, very strong responses”.
Protests at dozens of schools over university reforms, and a call by farmers for demonstrations next week, have added to a sense of general revolt in France.