All eyes on Macron after fresh ‘yellow vest’ protests hit France
Calls mounted Sunday for President Emmanuel Macron to bring an end to the “yellow vest” crisis gripping France as authorities in Paris and elsewhere counted the cost of another day of violent protests and looting.
Authorities said the anti-Macron riots in Paris had been less violent than a week ago, with fewer injured — but city hall said the physical damage was far worse as the protests were spread out across the capital.
Burned-out cars dotted the streets in several neighbourhoods on Sunday morning as cleaners swept up the broken glass from smashed shop windows and bus stops.
“There was much more dispersion, so many more places were impacted,” Paris deputy mayor Emmanuel Gregoire told France Inter radio. “There was much more damage yesterday than there was a week ago.”
The southwestern city of Bordeaux was also badly hit by rioting during a fourth successive weekend of nationwide “yellow vest” protests. What began as demonstrations against fuel tax hikes have ballooned into a mass movement over rising living costs and accusations that Macron, an ex-banker, only looks out for the rich.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the unrest was creating a “catastrophe” for the French economy, with nationwide roadblocks playing havoc with the traffic and putting off tourists from visiting Paris. Parts of the city were on lockdown Saturday, with department stores shut to avoid looting along with museums and monuments including the Eiffel Tower.
“It’s a catastrophe for commerce, it’s a catastrophe for our economy,” Le Maire told reporters as he visited shops in Paris hit by looting. Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux vowed that Macron’s centrist administration would find solutions that took into account protesters’ different grievances. Overwhelmingly made up of people from rural and small-town France, the movement nonetheless includes protesters of various political stripes whose goals range from lower taxes to Macron’s resignation. “We need to find solutions that take account of each person’s reality,” Griveaux told Europe 1 radio.
“It is anger that is difficult to understand from an office in Paris,” he acknowledged. The protests have shown little sign of easing since they began on November 17. The interior ministry said 136,000 people had taken part nationwide in Saturday’s protests, which turned violent in several other cities including Marseille and Toulouse. In Paris, around 10,000 “yellow vests” flocked to the Champs-Elysees and other areas — 2,000 more than joined the action last week, as many headed in from the provinces for the first time.
Nationwide, more than 1,700 people were detained — over 1,000 of them in Paris as police vowed “zero tolerance” for anarchists, far-right supporters and others seeking to cause trouble. More than 500 people were still in custody in Paris by Sunday morning, officials said. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe had congratulated police on the security operation, which mobilised 8,000 officers and saw armoured vehicles deployed in Paris for the first time.
Thibault de Montbrial, head of the CRSI security think tank, tweeted that authorities had managed to contain the hooligans who have repeatedly hijacked the protests to go on a looting and rioting spree. But he added: “The state cannot mobilise such forces every Saturday, and neither can shopkeepers barricade themselves in faced with violence which is not diminishing.
“This is a decisive political moment.”
The embattled president — whose name rang out across the Champs-Elysees as protesters shouted “Macron, resign” — is expected to address the demonstrations in a much-anticipated speech in the coming days.
The crisis facing a leader who had been hailed internationally as a youthful defender of liberal values is being closely watched abroad. Spain’s El Pais newspaper said it was the first time the 40-year-old was “hesitating, giving the impression that he does not know what to do“. Macron has already offered protesters a string of concessions, including scrapping further rises in fuel taxes — a major climbdown for a president who had vowed not to be swayed, like his predecessors, by mass protests.
So far he has refused to back down on another policy hated by the “yellow vests“: his decision to scrap a “fortune tax” on the wealthiest. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen — who is backed by some protesters from “forgotten” provincial France, but by no means all — called for Macron to “recognise society’s suffering and deliver immediate, very strong responses“. The movement has spread beyond France’s borders, with around 400 arrested at a “yellow vest” event in Brussels on Saturday and peaceful demonstrations taking place in Dutch towns.
In France, authorities have also launched an investigation into social media activity from accounts allegedly drumming up support for the protests, sources told AFP. According to Britain’s Times newspaper, hundreds of online accounts linked to Russia were used to stoke the demonstrations.
Citing analysis by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company, the Times said the accounts spread disinformation and used pictures of injured protesters from other events to enhance a narrative of brutality by French authorities.