PARIS, France (AFP) — Anti-government protesters torched dozens of cars and set fire to storefronts during daylong clashes with riot police across central Paris on Saturday, as thousands took part in fresh “yellow vest” protests against high fuel taxes.
Officers responded with tear gas after being targeted by protesters hurling rocks and other projectiles on the third weekend of demonstrations which have morphed into a broader rebuke of French President Emmanuel Macron.
Police closed off some of the city’s most popular tourist areas as they tried to quell the mayhem in the streets. At least 110 people were injured.
Macron denounced the violence from the G-20 summit in Argentina, saying those who attacked police and vandalized the Arc de Triomphe will be “held responsible for their acts.” He said he will hold an emergency government meeting Sunday on the protests.
It was the third straight weekend of clashes in Paris involving activists dressed in the fluorescent yellow vests of a new protest movement and the worst urban violence since at least 2005. The scene contrasted sharply with other protests in France, where demonstrations and road blockades elsewhere were largely peaceful Saturday.
The violence is Macron’s biggest challenge so far as president, and even colored his international image as he had to defend his plans for fuel tax rises — the initial impetus for the protest movement — to other leaders at the G-20 summit. France’s failure to quell the anger has led to copycat yellow jacket movements in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
Thousands of French police were deployed to try to contain the violence, which began Saturday morning near the Arc de Triomphe and continued well after dark. Paris police said at least 110 people, including 20 police officers, were injured in the violent protests and 287 were arrested.
Smoke engulfed several shopping districts as the violence spread from the Arc de Triomphe, where crowds had gathered earlier hoping to march down the Champs-Elysees.
While several dozens were allowed into the avenue after an ID check and search, many others — some wearing gas masks or ski goggles — remained behind and fought police manning barricades and water cannons.
Protesters then led police on cat-and-mouse chases through other parts of the capital, setting cars and construction equipment alight and smashing windows.
An assault rifle was stolen from a police vehicle, a source told AFP, though it was unclear if it was loaded.
One person was in a critical condition after protesters pulled down one of the huge iron gates of the Tuileries garden facing the famed Louvre museum, crushing several people.
“Those responsible for this violence don’t want change or improvement, they want chaos,” Macron said in Buenos Aires.
Macron added that he had convened a meeting with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner and other top officials in Paris on Sunday after his return from Argentina.
“No cause justifies that authorities are attacked, that businesses are plundered, that passers-by or journalists are threatened or that the Arc de Triomphe is defiled,” he said.
Philippe said the violence was “incredibly shocking” during a visit evening to a police barracks on Saturday evening.
Nearly 190 fires were put out and six buildings were set alight, the interior ministry said.
An estimated 75,000 demonstrators, most of them peaceful, were counted across the country in the afternoon, the interior ministry said.
The number was well below the first day of protests on November 17, which attracted around 282,000 people, and also down from the 106,000 who turned out last Saturday.
Acrid plumes of smoke and tear gas, however, were testament to the escalation in violence in Paris, to the consternation of many of the “yellow vests”, so-called for the high-visibility jackets they wear.
Along the opulent Avenue Foch near the Arc de Triomphe, home to embassies and luxury residences, protesters ripped out benches to form a blockade, one person waving a skull-and-bones pirate flag.
Interior Minister Castaner attributed the violence to “specialists in sowing conflict, specialists in destruction.”
He did not rule out imposing a state of emergency — a demand made by the police union Alliance — declaring: “Nothing is taboo for me. I am prepared to examine everything.”
“We’re a peaceful movement, but we’re disorganized — it’s a mess because we don’t have a leader,” said Dan Lodi, a 68-year-old pensioner on the Champs-Elysees.
“You always have some idiots who come to fight, but they don’t represent us at all.”
‘Macron has to listen’
Stores and restaurants along the Champs-Elysees as well as surrounding streets had boarded up windows, anticipating a repeat of the clashes last Saturday which Macron compared to “war scenes.”
Chantal, a 61-year-old pensioner, said she was avoiding the “hooligans” but was determined to send Macron a message on the rising costs of living.
“He has to come down off his pedestal,” she said under rain in the Champs-Elysees. “Every month I have to dip into my savings.”
The “yellow vest” movement erupted on social media in October and has since become a wider protest against Macron, who is accused of failing to recognize the rising cost of living that has left many struggling.
The countrywide protests have included many pensioners and have been most active in small urban and rural areas where demonstrators blocked roads, closed motorway toll booths, and even walled up the entrance to tax offices.
Two people have died and dozens have been injured in the rallies, which opinion polls suggest still attract the support of two out of three French people.
Attempts by the government to negotiate with the grassroots movement have failed, in large part because representatives have insisted on public talks broadcast on TV.
Macron has sought to douse the anger by promising three months of nationwide talks on how best to transform France into a low-carbon economy without penalizing the poor.
He also vowed to slow the rate of increase in fuel taxes if international oil prices rise too rapidly but only after a tax hike due in January.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.