Why France is engulfed by worst urban riots in a decadeworld Updated: Dec 03, 2018 12:27 IST
A picture shows a burned car in a street of Paris on December 2, 2018, a day after clashes during a protest of Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs. (AFP)
France’s most violent urban riot in a decade engulfed central Paris on Saturday as “yellow jacket” activists torched cars, smashed windows, looted stores and tagged the Arc de Triomphe with multi-colored graffiti.
In addition to rising taxes, the demonstrators are furious about president Macron’s leadership, saying that his government does not care about the problems of ordinary people.
The grassroots protests began with motorists upset over a fuel tax hike, but now involve a broad range of demands related to France’s high cost of living.
The movement’s demands have also expanded to higher pensions, an increase in the minimum wage, a repeal of certain 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.
The violence in Paris, however, suggests that some protests appear to have been taken over by more radical far-right or far-left groups.
The authorities were caught off guard by the escalation in violence, known as the “yellow vest” movement named after fluorescent jackets mandatorily kept in all vehicles in France.
President Emmanuel Macron will hold an emergency meeting with the prime minister and interior minister later on Sunday to discuss the riots and how to begin a dialogue with the protest movement, which has no real structure or leadership.
Denouncing the violence, Macron said, “(Violence) has nothing to do with the peaceful expression of a legitimate anger” and “no cause justifies” attacks on police or pillaging stores and burning buildings.
It was the third straight weekend of clashes in Paris with activists dressed in the fluorescent yellow vests of a new protest movement and the worst urban violence since at least 2005.
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 224 others were arrested.
By the afternoon, clashed continued down several streets popular with tourists. Pockets of demonstrators built makeshift barricades in the middle of Paris streets, lit fires, torched cars and trash cans, threw rocks at police and smashed and looted stores.
Some demonstrators removed the barriers protecting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I under the Arc de Triomphe monument to pose near its eternal flame and sing the national anthem. They were dispersed by police.
Graffiti sprayed onto the Arc de Triomphe wrote: “yellow jackets will triumph.”
By Saturday afternoon, central Paris was locked down police, with all roads leading away from the Arc closed off as more police moved in. Over 20 downtown Paris metro stations were closed for security reasons and police ordered stores in nearby neighborhoods to close early Saturday evening.
Hours later, some cars still smoldered and law enforcement and protesters were still facing off elsewhere in the capital.
French television showed police leading a shaken woman away from the protesters, and loud bangs rang out near the famed Champs Elysees Avenue where the violence was centered.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tweeted her “indignation” and “deep sadness” at the destruction and clashes with police, saying that violence is “not acceptable.”
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen urged the protesters to go home in a tweet.
French authorities said they counted 75,000 protesters Saturday across the country, including 5,500 in Paris, numbers that were less than last week’s protest but produced much more destruction.
Earlier Saturday, several hundred peaceful protesters in Paris passed through police checkpoints to reach the Champs-Elysees. They marched on the famed avenue behind a big banner that read “Macron, stop taking us for stupid people.”
Access to the Champs-Elysees was closed to cars and strictly monitored by police with identity checks and bag inspections.
“It’s difficult to reach the end of the month. People work and pay a lot of taxes and we are fed up,” said Rabah Mendez, a protester who came from a southern suburb to march peacefully in Paris.
“Our purchasing power is severely diminishing every day. And then: taxes, taxes and taxes,” said Paris resident Hedwige Lebrun. “The state is asking us to tighten our belts, but they, on the contrary, live totally above all standards with our money.”
Since the yellow jacket movement kicked off on November 17, two people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes or accidents stemming from the protests.
First Published: Dec 02, 2018 15:15 IST