Scenes more reminiscent of a battlefield than of the usually sedate avenues of western Paris lined with high-end shops, foreign embassies, and corporate headquarters greeted visitors to the French capital last weekend when a gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, demonstration against the rising cost of living in France descended into violence for the second time in the last two weeks.
Thousands of masked protesters on the margins of a peaceful demonstration on the iconic Champs-Elysées shopping avenue fought running battles with police, set fire to cars and looted and torched shops and buildings as they set up makeshift barricades in streets near the Arc de Triomphe.
Newspapers and television channels worldwide carried images of shattered shopfronts and restaurants in some of the French capital’s most expensive districts, along with footage of cars and buildings going up in flames as riot police struggled to contain the rioters.
More than 400 people were arrested on Saturday, with an estimated 378 still being held in custody. More than 130 people were injured.
On Tuesday it was announced that the French government would be suspending the increases in the price of fuel that had been the immediate catalyst of the disturbances.
The day started with a peaceful demonstration of some 5,000 gilets jaunes demonstrators along the Champs-Elysées, most of them wearing the reflective yellow outdoor jackets after which the movement is named.
The demonstrators carried banners protesting against the economic policies of the French government, many of them calling in particular for the resignation of President Emmanuel Macron.
However, the area was later overwhelmed by a different group of masked protesters who had apparently taken advantage of the protests in order to smash up neighbouring shops and buildings.
The Arc de Triomphe itself was an early casualty, with masked protesters breaking into its lower floors and daubing it with slogans including “Macron resign” and “the yellow vests will win.”
Later still, the rioters fanned out across the surrounding area, playing cat-and-mouse with the police. Luxury stores on the Boulevard Haussmann were evacuated, smaller shops pillaged and fires started in the Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre where the windows of the Jeu de Paume, an extension of the Louvre Museum, were smashed.
Riot police were out in force along the neighbouring Rue de Rivoli, but even so in the Place Vendôme, one of the most expensive areas in Paris, the rioters managed to attack luxury stores and build barricades, splattering police lines with yellow paint and wearing masks to counter the use of tear gas.
As was the case with earlier riots the previous week, efforts were made to distance the peaceful protesters from the rioters.
Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz was quoted as saying that many of those arrested in battles with police had “come to fight police while claiming to be part of the gilets jaunes movement.”
Macron himself flew back from Argentina on Sunday where he had been attending a meeting of the G20 group of countries and went to inspect damage at the Arc de Triomphe. French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said he would meet representatives of legitimate protest groups this week in an effort to calm the tensions and stop the “professional” rioters.
However, a similar initiative after the riots last weekend ended in farce when only one person stayed for a similar meeting. The confused response of the authorities to the riots and the apparent inability of the police to exert control over some of the French capital’s most upscale districts have emphasised the challenges the gilets jaunes movement represents for Macron’s government.
At the same time that the riots were taking place in Paris last weekend, more than 130,000 people were demonstrating in the rest of France, often blocking roads and occasionally clashing with police and the security forces.
In Toulouse in the south of the country, 48 police officers were injured in clashes with demonstrators, and in Bordeaux to the west six people were injured when riot police fired tear gas on demonstrators in the city centre.
The gilets jaunes movement started in response to the threatened increases in the cost of fuel, but it has broadened to take in widespread dissatisfaction with Macron’s government.
Macron himself, trailing in the polls, has become a target of the demonstrators, with many accusing him of being out of touch with much of the population and governing the country in the interests of the wealthy.
The gilets jaunes have no official leaders or organisation, and protesters reportedly contact each other through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
This means that it has been difficult for the government to identify interlocutors or to act against movement leaders.
One difficulty identified by French commentators has been the relationship between the demonstrators and the government’s more traditional critics in the opposition parties and trade unions.
While the leaders of France’s mainstream right and left-wing parties, the Républicains and the Socialist Party, have attempted to capitalise on the demonstrations as a sign of widespread dissatisfaction with Macron’s government, the demonstrators themselves have kept their distance from the political parties.
They do not have any clear relationship with the extreme-right National Front Party, now renamed the National Rally, of Marine Le Pen, and they are not allied to the extreme-left France Insoumise (France Unbowed) Party of Jean-Luc Mélénchon.
The large numbers of demonstrators that the gilets jaunes have attracted to demonstrations across France have also contrasted with the comparative indifference greeting similar calls to demonstrate by the country’s labour unions.
This was evident last weekend when a march organised by the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), one of France’s largest unions, in the east of Paris was largely deserted at the same time as the gilets jaunes were demonstrating further to the west.
The independent character of the gilets jaunes and their success in mobilising opposition to Macron’s government where the established political parties and labour unions have failed has been seen by many commentators as linking the new movement to other grassroots protest movements that have grown up outside the established party system, such as the Podemos Movement in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy and the Syriza Coalition in Greece.
Macron himself came to power in last year’s French presidential elections by by-passing the established political parties in France, setting up a new République En Marche movement that has since become an echo chamber for the president’s policies in the eyes of many commentators.
All this has left Macron isolated in the face of the gilets jaunes and without an established party structure or obvious interlocutors.
Perhaps it was partly for this reason that editor of the French newspaper Le Monde Jérôme Fenoglio was severe on Macron’s handling of the crisis in his front-page comments on Monday.
Professing himself shocked by the “rage and hate that were directed for hours on end at the wealthy areas of the capital,” Fenoglio said that Macron’s “commando operation” in winning the presidential elections last year without the support of an established political party had now come back to haunt him.
This success, Fenoglio said, had become “a form of solitude accompanied by a handful of faithful figures occupying key positions… the calling into question of civil-society organisations, systematically by-passed since the beginning of [Macron’s] presidency, is now a major handicap when they should be acting to transmit the pressures of a social conflict of this type.”
Macron’s vaunted “modernity” had turned out to be “an incapacity to understand the new forms of expression and mobilisation of a previously unheard-of movement. The ‘splendid’ posture [of the president] has turned into a more and more obvious inability to maintain order.”
“The continuing mixture of arrogance and verbal provocation has led into the present trap,” Fenoglio concluded. “It will be difficult to get out of it without root-and-branch reforms of a form of government that at the moment has done nothing to break the downward cycle that has been the fate of successive presidents.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Further riots hit Paris