A day of clashes between 'Yellow Vest' demonstrators and police resulted in hundreds of arrests and substantial damage in Paris on Saturday in what media branded the worst riot in more than a decade.
People have been protesting against rising fuel taxes and living costs for two weeks nationwide, wearing the fluorescent yellow vests kept in all cars in case of emergency in France. But while protests had previously been kept relatively calm, Saturday presented a bigger challenge for both police and demonstrators.
The police reported that about 300 people were arrested and 110 people injured, including 20 officers from the security forces. Riot police clashed with protesters downtown and in tourist areas, using water cannons and tear gas at the Champs-Elysees boulevard, the Tuileries Garden near the Louvre museum and other sites.
The ‘Yellow Vests’ is a grassroot movement organized mainly by drivers through social media since May and it’s growing in number. It was initially focused on fuel taxes, but the movement has snowballed into wider protests against economic hardship in provincial France and perceived elitism by French President Emmanuel Macron, who the Yellow Vests claim doesn’t care about working-class people.
Macron, busy at the G-20 Summit in Argentina, condemned the protest and promised that those who attacked the police and painted political slogans on the Arc de Triomphe, such as “Yellow Vests Will Triumph,” would be held accountable for their acts.
“What happened today in Paris has nothing to do with the pacific expression of a legitimate anger,” Macron declared in a press conference from Buenos Aires. “Nothing justifies an attack on public security forces, robbing commerces, burning buildings or threatening journalists.”
Elsewhere in France, the protests continued without incident.
Deputy Mayor of Paris Emmanuel Gregoire also condemned what he called a “dark day” and denounced the “symbolical damage” against the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, beneath the Arc.
Demonstrators were seen getting close to the tomb to sing the national anthem near the eternal flame lit after World War I. Soldiers approached to disperse demonstrators by firing tear gas.
At least one person remains in serious condition after a heavy metal fence fell on protesters at the Tuileries gardens, according to Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.
Protesters smashed the windows of a newly opened flagship Apple Store (AAPL.O) and luxury boutiques of Chanel and Dior, where they daubed the slogan “Merry Mayhem” on a wooden board.
Close to the Place Vendome, Christmas trees decorating the streets were upended, piled in the middle of an avenue and set ablaze, prompting chanting by scores of protesters.
By the afternoon, police had regained control of most of central Paris and ordered stores in the area to close early due to security concerns. However, clashes continued elsewhere in the city until late at night.
Authorities said violent far-right and far-left groups had infiltrated the Yellow Vests movement. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said most of those arrested were regular protesters who had been egged on by the fringe groups.
“Our purchasing power is severely diminishing every day. And then: taxes, taxes and taxes,” Paris resident Hedwige Lebrun told AP. “The state is asking us to tighten our belts, but they, on the contrary, live totally above all standards with our money.”
“We are in a state of insurrection, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jeanne d’Hauteserre, the mayor of Paris’ 8th district, near the Arc de Triomphe.
The popular rebellion erupted out of nowhere on November 17 and has spread quickly via social media, with protesters blocking roads across France and impeding access to shopping malls, factories and some fuel depots. Two people have been reported dead so far as a result of the protests.
Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, President Macron and other authorities are due to hold an emergency meeting on Sunday to address the issue.
Earlier in 2018, Macron announced tax increases on fuel by January of 2019, rising about US$0.12 per gallon for gas and US$0.24 in the case of diesel.
Due to the increasing protests, Macron pledged a three-month public consultation aimed at producing a roadmap to help France shift to a low-carbon economy without penalizing low-income families. But he refused to veto the increase in fuel tax, which is due to come into force in January, claiming it is needed to help fight pollution.
According to a poll published by Opinion Way last week, 66 percent of those questioned said they supported the protests, while 78 percent of the 1,013 people questioned said the measures announced by the president were "wholly" or "mostly insufficient."
The French movement has already inspired similar protests in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.