PARIS (AFP) — Ten people went on trial on Monday accused of taking part in one of the most violent episodes of the antigovernment "yellow vest" protests that rocked France two years ago.
Prosecutors admit, however, that the suspects are neither the instigators nor the main culprits of the vandalism and looting around the Arc de Triomphe monument in Paris, when scenes of destruction and fierce clashes with police made global headlines.
Dozens of cars were set on fire and businesses were trashed all along the famed Champs-Elysees avenue on December 1, 2018, the third Saturday of mass demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron.
He was accused of ignoring the plight of struggling French families and after months of protests he abandoned a planned fuel tax hike and raised spending on the lowest earners.
The protesters had already skirmished with security forces at earlier rallies, but police were unprepared for the rioting that engulfed the capital just a few weeks before Christmas.
Despite volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets, the officers were forced to abandon their positions around the Arc de Triomphe, which honours France's war dead.
Protesters snuffed out the eternal flame over the tomb of an unknown World War I soldier and spray-painted the stone walls with graffiti including "the yellow vests will triumph".
Others forced their way inside the arch, ransacking the gift shop and damaging scores of artworks, causing damage that cost 1.2 million euros ($1.4 million) to repair.
- 'Small fish' -
The 10 on trial on Monday, most of whom have no criminal records, face charges of destruction and theft.
But lawyers for the accused say they are unfairly taking the blame because the main offenders managed to escape before police were able to clear the monument.
"This is a trial for small fish, because the big fish aren't here," said Veronique Massi, a lawyer for one of the suspects, who says he was only seeking refuge as the police charged.
"They wanted to be at the heart of the action, they didn't think it was going to end like that."
But for Jean-Philippe Morel, a lawyer for the HAPPAH heritage defence association, a claimant in the case, there is sufficient evidence to prove the suspects took part in the violence.
"We have those responsible," he said, "even if they aren't the main ones".
Seven other people, including a minor, will be tried later on charges of unlawfully entering a historic monument.
© Agence France-Presse