Demonstrators looted and torched shops and businesses on the famed Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on Saturday, on the 18th straight weekend of “yellow vest” protests, characterised by an uptick in violence after weeks of dwindling turnout.
A Boss menswear store and the upscale Fouquet’s restaurant — a brasserie popular with politicians and film stars — were among the premises to have their windows smashed by groups of hooded demonstrators in scenes reminiscent of the worst “yellow vest” riots in Paris in December.
The demonstrators also set fire to a Longchamp handbag store and to a bank situated on the ground floor of an apartment building, which was engulfed by flames.
]The fire service evacuated the residents, including a nine-month-old baby, and extinguished the blaze.
Saturday’s turnout is a test for the “yellow vest” movement, which began in November over fuel tax hikes and quickly ballooned into a rebellion against President Emmanuel Macron’s policies but has struggled lately to mobilise large numbers of protesters.
The police estimated the number of protesters in Paris at 10,000, out of around 14,000 nationwide — a fraction of the 282,000 that took part in the inaugural demonstrations on November 17.
By the mid-afternoon 129 people had been arrested.
Eleven people, including two fire fighters, suffered minor injuries in the bank blaze, the fire service told AFP.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner in a tweet accused the arsonists of being “neither demonstrators, nor trouble-makers” but “murderers”.
– ‘Ultra-violent’ minority –
The rally coincides with the end of the public debates called by Macron to try take the heat out of the protests and give voters a forum to propose policy changes.
Around half a million people turned out at townhall-style meetings held around the country over the past two months.
But many “yellow vests” dismissed the consultation exercise as a smoke-screen.
On Saturday, the police used tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon to repel protesters who gathered at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe war memorial, which was sacked by protesters on December 1 in scenes that drew international condemnation.
Several news stands also went up in smoke as groups of mostly black-clad demonstrators pelted the security forces with stones and erected barricades.
“There are a number of people who have come just to smash things,” Castaner said, estimating that some 1,500 “ultra violent” activists had infiltrated the crowd.
“We have been too nice, that’s why it’s violent today. I’m not in favour (of violence) but we are ruled by corrupt people who dare to lecture us,” Jean-Francois Bernard, a landscape gardener who was among the protesters, told AFP.
On social media, “yellow vest” leaders had hinted at the arrival of sympathisers from Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and even Poland.
“Macron, we’re coming to get you at home,” some of the protesters chanted, referring to the presidential palace situated near the Champs-Elysees.
The president and his wife Brigitte were however last seen publicly at a ski resort in the southwestern Pyrenees mountains, where they arrived for a short break Thursday night on Macron’s return from a trip to Africa.
– ‘We want results’ –
On Saturday, protesters streamed into the capital by train and car for a rally they called an “ultimatum” to the young president.
Over 5,000 police were deployed, along with several armoured police vehicles.
Macron, who was caught off guard when grassroots protesters began occupying traffic roundabouts in November over fuel taxes, has loosened the state’s purse strings to the tune of 10 billion euros ($11.2 billion) to try defuse the protests.
He then travelled the length and breadth of the country, engaging in marathon debates with local politicians and voters.
But the measures failed to quell the anger of the anti-capitalist demonstrators, who accuse the former investment banker of being elitist and favouring the rich.
Last month the leaderless movement, which spans the spectrum from the far left to right, was tainted by allegations of anti-Semitism.
French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was jeered and called a “dirty Zionist” by a group of “yellow vests” after he crossed their path during a protest.
The protest was one of several in Paris on Saturday, where thousands of climate campaigners also held a demonstration to demand that the French government uphold its commitments on reducing emissions.