French violence flares as yellow vest protests enter fourth month

17 Mars, 2019, 00:24 | Auteur: Anatole Charbonneau
  • The police responded with teargas and water cannon but failed to disperse the more radical protesters. AFP  Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT

PARIS - Protesters set fire to a bank and ransacked stores on Paris' landmark shopping street in a new flare-up of violence as France's yellow vest demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron and his pro-business reforms entered their fourth month.

Smoke and tear gas shrouded the Champs-Elysées and at least 109 people were arrested in the worst outbreak of violence on the fringes of a "yellow vest" demonstration in Paris for several weeks.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said that although the protest was relatively small, there had been more than 1,500 "ultra violent" people out looking for trouble.

Demonstrators have looted shops in Paris in a resurgence of the gilets jaunes ("yellow vest") protests that started four months ago in France.

Protest organizers had hoped to make a splash Saturday, which marks the 4-month anniversary of the yellow vest movement, which started November 17, and the end of the "Great Debate" that the French president organized to respond to protesters' concerns about sinking living standards, stagnant wages and high unemployment.

A Yellow Vest protester waves a French national flag while standing behind a burning barricade on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on 16 March 2019, during the 18th consecutive Saturday of demonstrations called by the "Yellow Vest" (gilets jaunes) movement.

Last week, only around 28,000 people demonstrated nationwide, according to the authorities, a tenth of the numbers that turned out for the inaugural protest on November 17.

The gourmet Fouquet's restaurant were among the premises vandalised. AFP  Thomas SAMSON
The gourmet Fouquet’s restaurant were among the premises vandalised. AFP Thomas SAMSON

Saturday's turnout was seen a test of the ongoing strength of the movement, which began in November over fuel tax hikes and quickly ballooned into a rebellion against Macron's policies, seen by the protesters as geared towards the rich. Protesters pounded the windows of a police van and kicked the side of large trucks, as riot police were forced to retreat.

Around half a million people turned out at townhall-style meetings held around the country, but many "yellow-vest" protesters dismissed the consultation as a smokescreen.

Rioters also set fire to an upmarket handbag store and two news-stands on the Champs Elysees, while scattered bonfires burned on the thoroughfare.

From early morning protesters began pouring into the capital by train and auto from around the country for what they called an "ultimatum" to Macron. Over 5,000 police were deployed, along with several armoured police vehicles. He has loosened the state's purse strings to the tune of 10 billion euros ($11.2 billion) to try defuse the protests.

But the measures failed to quell the anger of the demonstrators, who accuse Macron, a centrist former investment banker, of being beholden to high finance.

Macron cut short a weekend ski trip in the Pyrenees to return to the capital on Saturday night after the violence, the Elysees presidential palace said. Several protesters smiled as they posed for a photo in front of one the charred remains of the kiosks. "We're here to show Macron that empty words are not enough", said yellow vest demonstrator Frank Leblanc, 62, from Nantes.

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