Protests by a grassroots movement descended into rock-throwing incidents on several Paris streets as police fired tear gas and water cannons and deployed armored vehicles a week after extremely violent clashes prompted President Emmanuel Macron’s government to back down on fuel tax increases.
By late afternoon Saturday, police arrested more than 1,000 people nationwide and held 720 in custody, with about 60, including three security forces, hurt as extreme-right, extreme-left and anarchists elements defied riot forces in Paris, according to the police prefecture. In Paris, 737 were arrested with 551 in custody.
While the number of arrests was higher than last Saturday, the violence and number of injured didn’t reach the levels of a week ago when national monuments were trashed and cars burned throughout central Paris. Many arrests were carried out early as police conducted searches ahead of the protests, seeking to prevent rioting. Tens of thousands of officers were deployed nationwide.
About 31,000 people joined the “Yellow Vests” movement in protest across France around midday, junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said in an interview with France 2. There were also clashes with police in Bordeaux, which continued into the evening, and in Toulouse along with roadblocks on highways including near Lyon, Clermont-Ferrand and Albertville.
In Paris, protesters were mostly contained to the Champs-Elysees and surrounding avenues, such as avenue Marceau and boulevard de Courcelles, as well as near the Opera district. On boulevard Poissonniere and boulevard Haussmann, some tried to erect barricades, using urban furniture and stones from the pavement, and defying police forces. Rioters looted a golf supply store, making off with clubs they used to smash the windows of bank branches.
By early evening, the Champs-Elysees was mostly cleared of demonstrators and calm had returned to most areas targeted by the protesters.
The violence appeared to have been caused by a mix of radicalized Yellow Vests, as well as unaffiliated anarchists and youths from Paris suburbs.
In eastern Paris, in Republique Square, protests were more quiet with no incident. On the Champs Elysees, many of the more peaceful Yellow Vests chanted for Macron to resign.
“We will make sure this day unfolds in the best possible way,” French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told reporters during a visit to the crisis cell at the Interior Ministry early in the day.
Police found hammers, gas masks and petanque balls during early searches, Johanna Primevert, a spokeswoman for the police prefecture, said in an interview with BFM TV. “People have well understood that if they want to demonstrate peacefully, they have to submit to these checks,” she said.
For France, it was the fourth straight weekend of nationwide protests. They began last month to fight higher gasoline taxes and have now spread to other demands, reflecting complaints about purchasing power and a general dislike of Macron.
After the president this week retreated by canceling a fuel-tax increase planned for January, members of his government and even some members of opposition parties had called on the Yellow Vests to ignore calls for fresh protests after last weekend’s demonstrations led to widespread vandalism and car burnings across Paris.
“The movement has given birth to a monster,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said Friday as he detailed security measures at a news conference.
After being taken by surprise by the scale of last Saturday’s violence, Paris prepared by closing many museums, asking shops on the Champs-Elysees to shutter, and postponing Saturday’s Paris Saint-Germain-Montpellier football match. The Eiffel Tower as well as iconic department store Galeries Lafayette closed for the day.
More than 89,000 officers were deployed to maintain order, including 8,000 in Paris where demonstrators a week ago torched cars, fought with riot police and vandalized the Arc de Triomphe. Police in the capital were backed up by a dozen armored vehicles.
The grassroots movement — named after the vests that all motorists must keep in their cars — has led to sporadic blockades of roads, fuel depots and warehouses since the first “day of action” Nov. 17. It’s organized through social media and has no leadership, but has the support of three-quarters of the French public, polls show.
The movement’s demands have also expanded to higher pensions, an increase in the minimum wage, a repeal of other taxes, the restoration of a wealth tax, a law fixing a maximum salary, and replacing Macron and the National Assembly with a “People’s Assembly.” While political parties have tried to show their support for the movement, the Yellow Vests have rejected any political link.
At first the government dismissed the movement, saying the higher gasoline taxes had been compensated by cuts in payroll taxes. Then it sought to highlight its contradictory demands, which include fewer taxes and better services. As popular support for the movement rose and violence spread, Macron returned from a G-20 summit in Argentina last Sunday to hold a series of emergency meetings that led with scrapping next year’s fuel-tax hikes, a rare retreat for the stubborn 40-year-old.