As the “yellow vest” demonstrations across France moved into their third week, Paris in particular became a scene of unprecedented rioting, police violence, and general discord. Tens of thousands of protestors set up roadblocks across the city and overwhelmed symbolically-important public spaces like the Champs Elysee and the Arc de Triomphe. What began as a series of mass protests against the government’s latest fuel tax has now expanded into a general rebuke of President Emmanuel Macron’s austerity government and its policies that disproportionately affect the working class.
Over one hundred people were injured in the capital city on Saturday in violent clashes between protestors and riot police. The police said they arrested upwards of 400 people in Paris, for throwing objects at the barricades of police officers, breaking windows, setting cars on fire, and otherwise damaging property. Some of the demonstrators appeared to target high-end stores like Chanel and Dior that line Paris’s famous streets, stores which had windows broken and were otherwise vandalized. One group pulled down a fence at the Tuileries garden outside the Louvre, wounding several people who were crushed by the iron pikes. Videos of protestors burning cars, and being chased and beaten by police, and violently knocked to the pavement by high-powered fire hoses flooded the internet as protests continued.
By Saturday night, large plumes of teargas — used by police throughout the day, across the city at sites like the Bastille — rose from the streets surrounding the crowd of thousands at the Arc de Triomphe. The gas mingled with smoke from the protestors’ makeshift barriers on the nearby Champs Elysee — large piles of debris gathered in the road over the course of the day and set on fire. At the Arc in particular, protestors convened throughout the day to sing the national anthem and chant against the country’s president. At one point, a group of protestors ransacked the attached museum, hacking the faces off of statues like the well-known Marianne and destroying the gift shop. Graffiti on the Arc itself called for the president’s resignation.
During the chaos, Macron himself was across the globe at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, making nice with Saudi Prince and recently-accused-killer Mohammed bin Salman. “I will never accept violence,” he said, before flying home to address the crisis. “No cause justifies that authorities are attacked, that businesses are plundered, that passers-by or journalists are threatened or that the Arc de Triomphe is defiled.” He might have done better to leave out the bit about journalists after he was recorded giggling with the Saudi prince, whom intelligence agencies including the CIA have concluded is responsible for killing Washington Post commentator Jamal Khashoggi.
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner equivocated on suggestions of whether the situation called for declaring a state of emergency. “Nothing is taboo for me,” he said. “I am prepared to examine everything.” He speculated, without evidence, that thousands had infiltrated the peaceful demonstrations determined to “pillage, smash, steal, wound, and even kill.” His office reported that the authorities put out close to 190 fires on Saturday throughout the protests.
Faced with the prospect of caving to protestors demands — first and foremost, the repeal of the recent diesel tax hike — the French president seems for the time being determined to press ahead and meet the disruption in the country’s capital with a heavy hand. “Those guilty of this violence don’t want change, they don’t want improvement, they want chaos,” he said on Saturday. “They betray the causes that they pretend to serve and which they manipulate.” Awkward as it must be for the 40-year-old leader, those causes include removing him from power.
Upon returning, Macron called a crisis meeting on Sunday with officials that included the prime minister, Interior Minister Castaner, and high-level security officials in France. The president toured the scenes of the previous day’s destruction, including at the Arc de Triomphe, and was followed by jeering protestors.
The chaos in Paris was the worst in a decade, despite the fact that the estimated 75,000 protestors that turned out across the country on Saturday was a significantly smaller number than the few hundred thousand present at the height of demonstrations two weeks ago. Parisians woke up to streets littered with broken glass and tear gas canisters, and authorities had to hire extra trucks to come tow away the burnt-out cars throughout the city. Two police unions in the city have called for the government to declare a state of emergency, which the administration officials have been silently considering since Saturday.
What Macron will not be able to avoid, however, is facing up to the overwhelming support protestors are receiving from the general public. In a country of less than 70 million, many hundred thousand have already taken to the streets over the course of the past few weeks to protest their president. According to one poll, a remarkable eight out of ten French people support the protestors in their general opposition to the Macron government. Under such circumstances, Macron’s brand of defensive, corporate politics can surely only take him so far before he’s forced to reckon will the growing public hatred of his administration.