French TV channels and online media broadcast non-stop from areas of central Paris in flames during Saturday’s demonstrations as dense crowds of men wearing masks faced off against police, smashed windows and tried to storm into stores, under the dumbfounded gaze of Parisians and tourists.
“On one side, near the Place de l’Opera, were the flashing Christmas trees, the multicolored Christmas windows and the consumers with arms laden with presents,” Le Parisien reported. “On the other side, a few hundred meters away, were the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe, where the yellow vests had quickly raised the tension, and where the rioters clashed with the police.”
The Avenue des Champs-Élysées and its emblematic Arc have been a particular target of the attacks, with explosions bursting regularly and skirmishes multiplying around an imposing security cordon established by the police to restrict access. At one point, the protesters occupied the Arc, trashing its ground floor and appearing on the top of the structure.
The Arc remained closed on Sunday and won’t reopen until repairs and cleaning have been completed.
Paris officials hired extra trucks and sanitation teams on Sunday to begin removing the burned-out cars from the scorched pavements of some of Paris’s most exclusive streets, and to clean the graffiti calling for Macron’s resignation, piles of tear gas canisters littering, and the detritus from rows of shattered shopfronts and smashed windows.
“Groups of masked men burned barricades, set fire to buildings, smashed fences and torched luxury cars on some of the most expensive streets in the city as riot police fired tear gas and water cannons,” described The Guardian.
“Early in the evening, the rioters spread around Paris in a game of cat and mouse with police. Luxury department stores on Boulevard Haussmann were evacuated as cars were set alight and windows smashed. Near the Louvre, metal grilles were ripped down at the Tuileries Garden where fires were started. On the Place Vendôme, a hub of luxury jewellery shops and designer stores, rioters smashed windows and built barricades.”
“Yellow vests against red Santa Claus” is the way French newspapers described the disturbances that convinced the main department stores, the Grands Magasins, to order evacuations on Saturday evening despite the fact that many tourists still were shopping while outside demonstrators confronted the police.
A spokesman for Printemps explained that executives had decided to close because rioters had tried several times to break into the department store. “Our security service has asked us to close the store, given the turn of events. On a Saturday like this we get 150,000 customers during the whole day. “
The “gilets jaunes” protest, which started as a peaceful civic movement in mid-November to oppose new regulations by President’s Emmanuel Macron’s government – especially an increase in the tax on gasoline – has shifted into a growing anti-government, anti-Macron movement now demanding the resignation of the president and has progressively deteriorated into increasing violence affecting vital sectors, including tourism.
The slogans during the marches have changed tone and on Saturday were more virulently attacking the centrist, pro-business president as a symbol of the ruling elite and of ignoring inequality and worsening living standards.
“Paris found itself on Saturday in chaos, the scene of a rare outburst of violence by thugs, on the sidelines of gatherings of yellow vests,” wrote Le Figaro.
“Vehicles and restaurants burned, stores ransacked and looted, police and relief forces taken apart: From the Opera district to the prestigious Avenue Foch via the Rue de Rivoli, urban guerrilla scenes were repeated in several upscale neighborhoods of the capital, eclipsing the message carried elsewhere in France by tens of thousands of yellow vests.”
The president of the Confederation of Actors of Tourism lamented on Sunday “the massacre against the welcoming image of Paris and France. These unsustainable images of riots will discourage not only foreign tourists, of course, because they are shocking and disturbing, but also the French.”
Already last Thursday, mass retailers had warned that a new violent weekend would have “dramatic” consequences for the trade, that have already seen sales fell 35%.
According to pollsters, the claims of the ‘gilets jaunes’ until now have found significant support from the general public and is proving to be the biggest headache and challenge yet for Macron and his government, which seem to have been taken by surprise by the anti-tax revolt – and even more by the violence – as they look for a way to quell it.
Saturday’s violence and shocking scenes in the smartest streets of Paris are characteristic of the unpredictability of the movement that has been infiltrated by bands of vandals known as “casseurs” in France and doesn’t seem to have clear leadership.
Peaceful protests were held elsewhere in Paris while violence also broke out in several French cities including Avignon, Lille and Marseille.
The government has mobilized more than 5,000 police around Paris in an effort to control any new outbreaks of violence.
“The guilty want chaos,” said Macron, who was participating at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires before returning on Sunday to take charge of the crisis, calling an emergency meeting of senior ministers. “They betray the causes they claim to serve. They will be identified and held accountable in court.”
The president warned that he would not make rash decisions and said that he had asked Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to receive, on an unspecified date, “the party leaders represented in Parliament and representatives of the demonstrators,” in an effort to maintain “a constant concern for dialogue.”