France in Crisis After Third Weekend of Violent Protests

Demonstrators set up a barricade in Paris on Saturday as police fire tear gas and water cannons at rioters. (AP photo/Thibault Camus)

(CN) — The toll is dramatic: 263 people injured nationwide, more than 400 arrested; the Arc de Triomphe covered in graffiti and its inner museums smashed; dozens of burned cars; torched businesses; a political crisis hanging over France; a feeling of insurrection in the air.

France on Monday was trying to make sense of another weekend of violent large-scale protests against President Emmanuel Macron and his government — and more generally at the wealthy classes — that left Paris and the rest of the nation reeling.

Saturday’s demonstrations were the most violent yet of three successive weekends of protests against the government’s imposition of taxes on fuel. The taxes are meant to force France away from diesel vehicles as a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Another tax hike is due in January.

France is famous for its dramatic, and often violent, street protests, but officials called these unlike any in a very long time.

Michel Delpuech, the Paris police chief, said the violence was “on a level not seen in decades.”

“We are in a climate of insurrection,” said Frederic Lagache, a leader of a national police union in France, on French media. He was among those calling for a state of emergency and the use of army troops to keep order.

The protesters — many shouting that they were “starting a revolution” — were indeed destructive.

In the wake of the protests, the Arc de Triomphe — France’s monument on the Champs-Elysees avenue to its war dead, triumphs and democracy — was a picture of outrage and a canvas of causes.

On it someone had spray-painted an anarchist symbol. There was scrawl calling on President Macron to step down. Raise welfare benefits, someone else spray-painted. There was a declaration that the protesters — the so-called “yellow vests” — will triumph. Someone else wrote: “End the regime.” Another: “We are right to revolt.” Another bit of graffiti showed a crown over Macron’s name.

Inside the Arc de Triomphe, protesters destroyed ticket booths with hammers, smashed windows, ransacked offices and broke an iconic sculpture.

Elsewhere, they tore down an iron gate at the Tuileries garden, which fell on protesters, leaving one person in critical condition. They set cars ablaze, torched businesses, smashed windows, marched and threw objects, including stones, at police. For their part, police fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters. Twenty-three police officers were injured in the clashes, officials said.

The reasons for protesting have morphed from anger over increases on fuel taxes to a more general anger at Macron and his government, stagnant wages, loss of purchasing power, inequalities between urban and rural France, and more.

The protesters are known as the yellow vests because they wear high-visibility safety vests that motorists are required to keep in their vehicles in case of emergencies.

All of this leaves a sense of crisis hanging over France.

On Monday, the French government was scrambling to respond. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was expected to meet with protest organizers. But such a meeting may be difficult because the protest movement has no clear leaders. It began as a grassroots movement backed mostly by people who feel they are the most hurt by the tax increases: those living in rural and suburban parts of France. The movement was quickly supported by France’s far-right politicians, who saw it as a middle-class popular uprising against government taxes. But the far left has also latched onto the protests.

For Macron, the protests are a new test to his presidency. Due to unpopular reforms, including a measure that makes it easier to fire workers, and growing unease with his haughty style, Macron’s popularity was very low even before the protests.

He has vowed to not bow to street protests. He castigated the protesters as unwilling to acknowledge the need for reforms in France.

“Those guilty of this violence don’t want change, they don’t want improvements, they want chaos,” Macron said. He pledged to bring perpetrators of violence “to justice for their actions.”

To temper anger, Macron has promised to hold nationwide talks on how to diminish France’s carbon emissions footprint in a manner that does not hurt the less affluent. He also has talked about slowing the rate of tax increases if international oil prices rise steeply.

For now, it appears that the protesters are winning the hearts of the French. Despite the violence, surveys show that many in France support the protests.

A poll conducted after Saturday’s events found 73 percent of respondents supported the protesters, Reuters reported Monday. The same poll, which sampled the opinions of 1,016 people, found 85 percent of those surveyed did not approve of the use of violence.

Analysts, meanwhile, were trying to figure out who exactly were behind the violence. Extremists on the far right and far left were blamed, but Paris prosecutors said it was too early to draw a profile of those arrested.

Political opponents to Macron, meanwhile, were calling for new parliamentary elections or a referendum on the new taxes.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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