PARIS: Armoured vehicles rolled through central Paris on Saturday as riot police clashed with “yellow vest” demonstrators, who set fire to barricades and hurled rocks in the latest demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron.
Shouts of “Macron, resign” mingled with tear gas on the Champs-Elysees avenue, which was the scene of the worst rioting in Paris in decades last week.
Thick plumes of black smoke from fires could be seen rising high into the sky over the city.
Government calls for protesters to stay away from “Act IV” of a battle that began over fuel prices but ballooned into an anti-Macron revolt fell on deaf ears, with demonstrators making their way to Paris from across the country.
In the Grands Boulevards shopping district, masked protesters threw rocks at riot police and set fire to a barricade hastily assembled from stolen dustbins and Christmas trees.
Denis, a 30-year-old forklift driver from the Normandy port of Caen, travelled to Paris for the first time Saturday to make his voice heard after three weeks at the barricades in the provinces.
“I’m here for my 15-month-old son. I can’t let him live in a country where the poor are exploited,” he told AFP.
The demonstrators began blockading roads over rising fuel taxes on November 17 but their list of demands have since grown, with many calling for the resignation of Macron, whom they accuse of favouring the rich.
Coordinated “yellow vest” protests were taking place across the country on Saturday, including on numerous motorways, causing havoc on the national road network.
Deputy interior minister Laurent Nunez said an estimated 31,000 people were taking part in protests nationwide, including 8,000 in Paris – similar numbers to last week.
Around 700 people had been detained, most of them in Paris.
Police carried out checks on people arriving at the capital’s train stations, confiscating items that could be used as projectiles as well as surgical masks and goggles used to protect against the effects of tear gas.
Some of those arrested were carrying hammers, slingshots and rocks.
But many of the demonstrators insisted they wanted no violence.
Parts of the city centre were on effective lockdown, with shops, museums, the Eiffel Tower and many metro stations closed. Top-flight football matches and concerts were cancelled.
Last weekend’s violence, which saw some 200 cars torched and the Arc de Triomphe vandalised, shook France and plunged Macron’s government into its deepest crisis so far.
“These past three weeks have produced a monster that its creators no longer control,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said Friday, vowing “zero tolerance” towards those aiming to wreak further destruction.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Friday evening met a delegation of self-described “moderate” yellow vests who urged people not to join the protests.
A spokesman from the movement, Christophe Chalencon, said Philippe had “listened to us and promised to take our demands to the president.”
“Now we await Mr Macron. I hope he will speak to the people of France as a father, with love and respect and that he will take strong decisions,” he said.
Philippe said some 89,000 police had been mobilised across France on Saturday, including 8,000 police in Paris, where a dozen armoured vehicles were being deployed for the first time in decades.
Shops around the Champs-Elysees boarded up their windows and emptied them of merchandise on Friday, while the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and other museums were shut.
Department stores were also closed due to the risk of looting on what would normally be a busy shopping weekend in the run-up to Christmas.
Foreign governments are watching developments closely in one of the world’s most visited cities.
The US embassy issued a warning to Americans in Paris to “keep a low profile and avoid crowds“, while Belgium, Portugal and the Czech Republic advised citizens to postpone any planned visits.
Macron this week gave in to some of the protesters’ demands for measures to help the poor and struggling middle classes, including scrapping a planned increase in fuel taxes and freezing electricity and gas prices in 2019.
But the “yellow vests“, some of whom who have become increasingly radicalised, are holding out for more.
Protests at dozens of schools over university reforms, and a call by farmers for demonstrations next week, have added to a sense of general revolt.
The hardline CGT union, hoping to capitalise on the movement, has called for rail and metro strikes next Friday to demand immediate wage and pension increases.
Macron’s decision early in his presidency to slash taxes on France’s wealthiest is particularly unpopular with the protesters.
Arguing that such a move was necessary in order to boost investment and create jobs, the former investment banker has so far ruled out re-imposing the “fortune tax.”
But the policy, along with hikes on pensioners’ taxes, cuts in housing allowances and a string of comments deemed insensitive to ordinary workers, has led critics to label him a “president of the rich.”
Macron had previously vowed to stay the course in his bid to shake up the French economy and not be swayed by mass protests that have forced previous presidents to back down.
The climbdown on higher fuel taxes – which were intended to help France transition to a greener economy – marked a major departure for the centrist president.