The rumble of armoured police trucks and the hiss of tear gas filled central Paris as French riot police fought to contain thousands of yellow-vested protesters venting their anger against the government in a movement that has grown more violent by the week.
A ring of steel surrounded the president’s Elysee Palace on Saturday – a key destination for the protesters – as police stationed trucks and reinforced metal barriers throughout the neighbourhood.
Stores along the elegant Champs-Elysees Avenue and the posh Avenue Montaigne boarded up their windows at the height of the holiday shopping season. Protesters ripped off the plywood protecting the windows and threw flares and other projectiles. French riot police repeatedly repelled them with tear gas and water cannon.
The yellow vest crowd was overwhelmingly male, a mix of those bringing their financial grievances to Paris – the centre of France’s government, economy and culture – along with groups of experienced vandals who tore steadily through some of the city’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, smashing and burning.
Police and protesters also clashed in other French cities, notably Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux, and in neighbouring Belgium. Some protesters took aim at the French border with Italy, creating a huge traffic backup near the town of Ventimiglia.
The French government’s plan was to prevent a repeat of the December 2 rioting that damaged the Arc de Triomphe, devastated central Paris and tarnished the country’s global image. It did not succeed and tear gas choked the Champs-Elysees Avenue by early evening.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said that 135 people had been injured and 974 taken into custody amid protests around the nation. Paris police headquarters counted 71 injuries in the capital, seven of them police officers.
An estimated 125,000 people demonstrated around France while 10,000 took their anger to the streets of Paris, double the number in the capital last week, the interior minister said. Toughening security tactics, French authorities deployed 8000 security officers in the capital alone, among the 89,000 who fanned out around the country.
All of the city’s top tourist attractions – including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre museum – shut down for the day, fearing the kind of damage that hit the Arc de Triomphe a week ago. Christmas markets and football matches were cancelled. Subway stations in the city centre closed and the US embassy warned citizens to avoid all protest areas.
Amid the melee, President Emmanuel Macron remained invisible and silent, as he has for the four weeks of a movement that started as a protest against a gas tax hike and metamorphosed into a rebellion against high taxes and eroding living standards.
France’s yellow vest protesters have political stances ranging from the far right to the far left but the leaderless group is united in its sense that Macron and his government are out of touch.
Macron on Wednesday agreed to abandon the fuel tax hike, which aimed to wean France off fossil fuels and uphold the Paris climate agreement. Many economists and scientists say higher fuel taxes are essential to save the planet from worsening climate change, but that stance hasn’t defused the anger among France’s working class.