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France protests: Paris descends into violence as ‘gilets jaunes’ demonstrators clash with police and set fires

France protests: Paris descends into violence as ‘gilets jaunes’ demonstrators clash with police and set fires

The elegant streets of central Paris were transformed into something like a war zone as anti-government protesters gathered to demonstrate for the third consecutive weekend, prompting unprecedented police action. Wealthy Parisians and affluent tourists who would usually fill the pavements of the capital remained behind the doors of their apartments and hotels as violence flared, with more than 600 people eventually arrested…

The elegant streets of central Paris were transformed into something like a war zone as anti-government protesters gathered to demonstrate for the third consecutive weekend, prompting unprecedented police action.

Wealthy Parisians and affluent tourists who would usually fill the pavements of the capital remained behind the doors of their apartments and hotels as violence flared, with more than 600 people eventually arrested in the capital alone.

Out on the graffiti-laden, boarded-up streets about 10,000 less privileged people from the outer suburbs and elsewhere in the region – who have now come to be known as the “gilets jaunes” – returned, bearing their fluorescent jackets and chanted repeated calls for Emmanual Macron to resign.

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A minority took a more forceful approach, setting objects alight in the middle of the road, ripping down signs and smashing shop windows. The police, with about a dozen officers on almost every street corner, flanked by rows of vans and in some cases armoured vehicles, were ready to act.

The crack of tear gas canisters was heard throughout the day, and police also used the tactic of “kettling” demonstrators, herding them into a small space and then, in some cases, firing rubber bullets at the crowd. 

The Independent spoke to one young protester moments after he was shot in the leg by a rubber bullet and left struggling to walk following a kettling incident. Brandon, 22, had to be treated by medics who were among the protesters.

His friend Romain, 24, said: “The police were advancing in on us and we walked forward a bit, but we didn’t throw stones or anything like that. We were about 50m away from them and they shot at him, just like that.”

The final major stand-off took place beneath the lights of the Champs Elysees, with a row of six police vans and several dozen officers facing protesters carrying a large banner calling for France to hold an emergency election. The demonstrators eventually dispersed after officers fired tear gas canisters into the crowd.

Not all protesters were rioting. Many said they had come to carry out a peaceful protest against not only the rise in fuel taxes but the cost of living in the country more broadly.

Sandine, a mother-of six living in the suburbs of Paris and working as a school cleaner and dinner lady, said she was “sick and tired” of struggling to keep her head above the financial waters. She claimed that although she had steered clear of rioting, she had still been subject to police brutality.

“I’m not here for the riots. But last week we were here, and even though we weren’t rioting the police were tear-gassing us for the whole day, and in a way I can understand why people do get violent. I think the police response is stronger today,” she said.

Discussing her loss of hope in politicians, Sandine said: “I voted for Macron, but I regret it. I’m anti-Le Pen so I didn’t have a choice. I thought Macron was young and he would do good things, but he’s just part of the rich. Now I wouldn’t vote for anyone.”

Alexis, a 21-year-old construction worker who lives on an estate near Disneyland Paris, and attended the protest with his parents, said: “I can’t live on my salary. If it wasn’t for my parents I would probably be on the street. The government needs to help us. I can’t even afford to take my girlfriend out for dinner. The only meal I can afford to make is pasta.

“That’s why I’m here. I’m not here to riot, I’m not a rioter. I grew up in an estate but I’m not a rioter. I just want to be able to live, to survive. 

“I voted for Macron, and it was a mistake. We were all wrong. Now, we need to do something. He needs to help his people. We should not be treated like animals.”

But the protests will likely be remembered less for the pleas from peaceful demonstrators, and more for the violence and hugely tightened security that came alongside them.

They erupted anew despite Mr Macron’s decision to scrap a planned fuel tax rise earlier this week.

France’s interior minister Christophe Castaner said 135 people had been injured during the day, including 17 police officers, and that police had arrested close to 1,000 amid “exceptional” security measures.

The level of violence appeared to be less than that of a week ago, when Paris witnessed its worst unrest since the 1968 student riots, though major clashes also took place in Lyon, Toulouse and Bordeaux.

Yellow-vest protesters stand by a burning barricade in Toulouse amid demonstrations against the cost of living (AFP/Getty Images)

Mr Castaner ​said about 120 demonstrators and nearly 20 police officers had been injured across France on Saturday. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested after police found them carrying potential weapons such as hammers and baseball bats.

Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, said police would remain vigilant through the night as some protesters continued to roam Paris.

Groups of young people, many of them wearing masks, continued their skirmishes with police around the Place de la Republique as some shops were looted.

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