The gangs, which set up barricades, lit fires, and smashed up restaurants and shopfronts and were met by water cannons and teargas by the police, are thought to have been attached to both the extreme left and the extreme right.
They had latched themselves onto a peaceful demonstration against the policies of French President Emmanuel Macron organised by the so-called gilets jaunes, or yellow jackets, apparently in order to cause maximum disruption.
In stunning scenes last Saturday that saw French police battling rioters who had apparently arrived in Paris with the intention of hijacking a peaceful demonstration, much of the Champs-Elysées became impassible to visitors during the beginning of the Christmas shopping season.
Shop and office workers were prevented from going about their business by the rioters, who kept them imprisoned inside for hours as they tore up paving stones, erected ad hoc barricades, lit fires and smashed up cars and vehicles.
Paris Police Chief Michel Delpuech was quoted as saying that the security forces had used some 5,000 canisters of teargas to quell the riots, or “more than one a minute,” while the local fire services had put out 100 fires.
The police arrested 103 people, including minors and 45 have been charged with public-order offences and are still in custody. 31 people were injured in the clashes, including seven members of the police.
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, talking to the media on Sunday, said “seditious” elements and “ultra-right” hooligans had hijacked the peaceful protest and sparked the violence.
In a speech at the Elysée Palace on Tuesday morning, Macron said “unacceptable violence” had taken place at Saturday’s demonstration, but that it was important not to “confuse the hooligans with the demonstration they had hijacked,” which carried an important message of “social alarm” at the rising cost of living.
The gilets jaunes movement, named after the yellow jackets worn by the demonstrators, has reacted particularly to threatened increases in the cost of fuel, but has also broadened to take in widespread dissatisfaction with Macron’s government.
Macron himself is now trailing in the polls and accused of being out of touch with much of the population and governing the country in the interests of the rich.
The gilets jaunes have no official leaders or organisation, and protesters reportedly contact each other through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Over recent weeks, wildcat protests have broken out across France featuring individuals wearing the yellow jackets, often blocking roads or public buildings and presenting formidable difficulties to the police.
According to French officials, more than 106,000 gilets jaunes protested across France on Saturday, including on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, or about half the number in demonstrations the previous week in which two people died.
There have been reports that further protests are planned in Paris on 1 December, though these have not been confirmed.
According to the French newspaper Le Monde, the 8,000 people who had ignored official advice and turned up at the demonstration on the Champs-Elysées last Saturday had mostly not been members of extremist groups and had not taken part in the rioting.
However, they had refused to follow official instructions to hold the demonstration on the nearby Champs de Mars near the Eiffel Tower, describing this as a “trap” designed to make them easier to control.
Most of the demonstrators were simply ordinary people, “members of the middle classes, often demonstrating for the first time,” and they had been caught unawares both by the hijacking of their demonstration by violent groups and by the “out of proportion” reaction of the security forces, the paper said.
“All the gilets jaunes spoken to by Le Monde accused the riot police of reacting prematurely and disproportionally to the demonstration,” it commented.
“This had made the situation worse, they said… Many dreamt of a new taking of the Bastille [the event that sparked the French Revolution in 1789] or of the events of May 1968 [that eventually brought down the government of former French president Charles de Gaulle].”
Many of the slogans unfurled at Saturday’s demonstration were directed at Macron personally, who has seen his popularity slip to historic lows in France over recent months, apparently as a result of economic policies that have been claimed do most to benefit the better-off.
Most opinion polls now give Macron approval ratings of between 21 and 34 per cent, a remarkable decline compared to earlier ratings of up to 62 per cent when he won the French presidential elections in a contest with extreme-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen in May 2017.
Macron said of the gilets jaunes demonstrations on Sunday that there was a need to provide “an economic, social and cultural response” to the demands of the “middle and working classes” who may feel they are not benefitting from France’s social and economic model.
Asked whether the discontent in France could be compared to that which had led to the British vote to leave the European Union two years ago, he said there was a need to “provide perspectives to the popular and middle classes” who might feel themselves to have been “left behind by globalisation.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Paris is burning