Violent Protests Mar End of France’s National Debate

(CN) — France’s capital was rocked by another round of violent mass demonstrations over the weekend as police clashed with protesters and throngs ransacked luxury Champs-Elysees stores and a historic restaurant.

Bystanders take snapshots of the burned restaurant Le Fouquet’s on the Champs-Elysees the day after it was vandalized and set on fire during the 18th straight weekend of demonstrations by the yellow vests, in Paris on Sunday. (AP photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh)

On Monday, President Emmanuel Macron, under fire for the government’s inability to control the protests, vowed to hit back hard. His government, though, already faces accusations police are using excessive force against protesters.

Saturday’s protests were meant to repudiate Macron’s efforts to win over the French population by holding an unprecedented listening session, le grand débat national.

Macron launched the two-month-long national debate in January, to hear from the French people about their problems and ideas for solutions. The goal was to quell growing nationwide protests against Macron’s ambitious moves to overhaul the economy, society and government. Protesters charge that Macron’s pro-business reforms benefit only the wealthy while much of the population struggles with low wages, unemployment and weakening purchasing power.

The debate closed on Friday with the French government claiming success after 10,000 town-hall-style meetings attracted up to a half million people and more than 1.4 million online comments were received. The government is expected to sift through those ideas and draw from them some new proposals.

Macron, too, could claim the debate a success as his rock-bottom poll numbers slowly inched up over the past two months. About 28 percent of the French now think favorably of Macron, according to recent polls.

The debate appeared to help sap the fury behind the protest movement known as the maillots jaunes, or yellow vests. The weekly protests, which at their height had seen about 290,000 people taking the streets in November, were dwindling in numbers and intensity before Saturday.

All this, apparently, made Macron feel so comfortable he decided to take an ill-advised ski trip to the Pyrenees on Friday, even as protesters vowed to turn Saturday into a big day of protest to make a statement about the shortcomings of the national debate.

Protesters showed up in big numbers, and forced Macron to cut his ski trip short after the Champs-Elysees descended into chaos. Authorities estimated the Paris protest was made up of about 10,000 people.

Videos showed violent clashes between protesters and police. In one instance, an officer was assaulted by protesters. Protesters hurled rocks at police, who responded with water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades. Other footage showed protesters attacking a police van.

Protesters ransacked luxury stores, cafés and restaurants along the Champs-Elysees, most notably a brasserie called Fouquet’s, a well-known restaurant and hangout for the rich and famous. The restaurant’s red awning was set afire and dining areas trashed.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner blamed the violence and vandalism on a hard-core group of about 1,500 protesters.

About 240 people were arrested and 42 protesters, 17 police officers and one firefighter were injured, according to police and France 24, a news broadcaster.

Police were criticized for being unable to contain the violence and vandalism. Police unions questioned a decision to deploy large numbers of police around government buildings, which allegedly left the ranks of police on the Champs-Elysees outnumbered. In all, about 80 stores were damaged, French media reported.

Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris, said she was “really angry” about the violence.

“We should be able to master a situation like the one we have just witnessed,” she told Le Parisien newspaper.

This was the 18th straight week of protests. These protests are being compared to France’s historic 1968 demonstrations, which coincided with unrest around the world.

For many in France, Macron needs to deliver on his promises and take action on the information his government gathered during the national debate.

“The problems start now” Jean Petaux, a political analyst at Sciences-Po Bordeaux University, told Voice of America radio. “To totally finish with the yellow vests, the government has to address at least part of their demands, which are very disparate, and give the sense it is offering credible solutions.”

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

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