Emmanuel Macron was elected last year on pledges to create more jobs and improve lives. But for many French people, his economic reforms are a disaster. Critics accuse him of being a president for the rich while hurting the poor. One of his reforms is causing particular outrage – fuel tax. So-called ‘yellow vest’ protesters in Paris blocked roads for a second successive Saturday to tell Macron they have had enough. Protesters say his environment-friendly tax on diesel aimed at cutting pollution has to go, and so does he.
Will Macron change his controversial policies?
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, will hold an emergency meeting of senior ministers on Sunday after central Paris saw its worst unrest in a decade on Saturday. Thousands of masked protesters fought running battles with police, set fire to cars, banks and houses and burned makeshift barricades on the edges of demonstrations against fuel tax rises.
On Sunday morning, Paris authorities hired extra trucks to begin removing the carcasses of burnt cars on from the scorched pavements of some of Paris’s most expensive streets, amid graffiti calling for Macron to resign.
Piles of teargas canisters littered broken pavements in front of rows of shattered shopfronts and smashed windows, as TV channels showed non-stop footage of central Paris in flames during Saturday’s events..
The government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux did not rule out imposing a state of emergency – which two police unions have called for. The president, prime minister and interior minister said they would discuss all available options.
More than 400 people were arrested on Saturday, with over 300 still in police custody on Sunday. More than 130 people were injured, while one protester is in serious condition in a coma.
Violence erupted on the margins of anti-fuel tax demonstrations held by the citizens’ protest movement known as the gilets jaunes – or yellow jackets/vests. Speaking from the G20 meeting in Argentina, Macron said he would “never accept violence”.
He added: “No cause justifies that security forces are attacked, shops pillaged, public or private buildings set on fire, pedestrians or journalists threatened or that the Arc de Triomphe is sullied.”
The president said that the peaceful demonstrators had legitimate concerns and he would hear their “anger”, added their demonstrations had been infiltrated by violent rioters who would be brought to trial in court.
Macron, who has staked his political identity on a vow to never give in to street protests, is now under pressure to find a way to calm the growing mood of social revolt in France, which has taken him by surprise.
In Paris, riot police started firing the first tear-gas early on Saturday morning, as peaceful gilets jaunes arrived at the Champs Élysées. The spontaneous citizens’ movement, began in mid-November protesting against rising fuel taxes but it has morphed into a much broader anti-government and anti-Macron one challenging inequality and poor living standards.
Slogans painted along Paris’s most expensive streets on Saturday slammed the young, centrist, pro-business president as a symbol of an elite cut off from the people.
The Champs Élysées was closed to cars and tightly monitored by police, with identity and bag checks taking place as shop workers boarded windows and dismantled outdoor terraces. But peaceful protestors complained that the use of teargas had begun very early in the morning as they attempted to access the Champs Élysées.
Some 5,000 peaceful gilets jaunes demonstrators marched down the Champs Élysées at midday on Saturday, some carrying roses, many shouting: “Macron, resign!” and singing the national anthem.
But by early afternoon, the Arc de Triomphe was surrounded by masked protestors fighting running battles with police. The interior minister Christophe Castaner said thousands of troublemakers unconnected to the peaceful demonstrations had deliberately come to “pillage, smash, steal, wound and even kill”. He called them rioters who were “professionals at causing disorder”.
Authorities stressed the difference between peaceful protesters who marched along some Paris streets on Saturday morning, singing and waving flags, and the violent clashes with masked men which followed.
Near the Arc de Triomphe, one of Paris’s most symbolic monuments, masked men burned barricades, set fire to buildings, smashed fences and torched luxury cars as riot police fired teargas and water-cannon.
Anti-Macron graffiti was scrawled over the Arc de Triomphe near the tomb of the unknown soldier and protestors then burst into the 19th century monument smashing up its lower floors, destroying the gift shop and smashing up statues, before climbing onto the roof.
Then, by early evening, rioters spread around Paris in a game of cat and mouse with police. Luxury department stores on Boulevard Haussmann were evacuated and convenience stores were pillaged.
Near the Louvre, metal grills were ripped down at the Tuileries Garden and fires were started. On the Place Vendôme, a hub of luxury jewellery shops and designer stores, rioters smashed windows and built barricades.
Across France, more than 75,000 gilets jaunes demonstrated all day on Saturday in cities or blocked roads and toll booths, with some briefly storming the runway at the Nantes airport and others blocking major motorway junctions or targeting prefects’ offices and tax offices.
On Sunday morning, Paris authorities were attempting to clean the facade of the Arc de Triomphe which had been covered in graffiti, including in large black letters: “The yellow vests will triumph.”
The gilets jaunes have significant support from the general public and are proving the biggest headache yet for Macron.
– The Guardian