The scenes of civil war lasted for hours, starting from Place Charles de Gaulle on the upper edge of the Champs Elysees and then spreading to the adjacent streets of the rich 16th Arrondissement and to other neighborhoods. Someone used black spray-paint to write on the Arc de Triomphe: “The yellow vests will triumph.”
Paris was in the throes of rage: after an impressive deployment of the police forces, more than 100 protesters were injured and 270 were arrested. In terms of raw numbers, the participation in the yellow vests movement’s protests is declining—this latest one featured 75,000 people throughout France and 5,500 in Paris—but violence has taken over and changed the political picture, above and beyond the possible manipulation and the presence of extreme-right-wing thugs. The spark that originally set off the blaze was the increase in fuel taxes, but at this point, rolling that back won’t be enough to restore the peace.
“Ras-le-bol!” (“Fed up!”) is the common slogan of the demonstrators. Theirs was an explosion that built up slowly, and by Saturday they commanded the support of a large majority of the population. The movement is now focused against Macron, “the banker,” who said from Buenos Aires, before returning from the G20 summit, that “they want chaos.”
There were outbreaks of violence throughout the day, from the Place Charles de Gaulle to the Place de la Concorde. In Rue de Rivoli, one could see flames at the Tuileries Gardens, where parts of the grid fence were torn away. There was an attempt to storm the Palais Brongniart, the old headquarters of the stock exchange.
From Les Invalides to Avenue Foch, Pont de l’Alma, Boulevard Haussmann, Avenue Kléber and the Trocadéro, a large part of the luxurious center of Paris was the scene of urban guerilla warfare for hours.
Dozens of cars were burned, and there were moments of panic when two fires started in buildings. The Galeries Lafayette and the Printemps department store were evacuated in the afternoon for fear of the violent thugs, who were not far away, engaged in fighting at the Opera. There were attacks on shops and robberies committed around the Place Charles de Gaulle and the Rue de Rivoli, in a much more potent outburst of violence than on the previous Saturday.
The clashes began at 8:45 a.m., with a first attempt of a group of yellow vests to force through the police line cordoning off the Champs Elysées, the place where they wanted to demonstrate although they had not requested permission to do so. An assault rifle was stolen from a police car. The police tried to repel the protesters using tear gas, water cannons and sound grenades. The street battle involving 1,500 violent fighters (according to the government’s numbers) continued into the night.
A preliminary estimate reported 100 injured in Paris and nearly 300 arrests in the capital alone. There were also some incidents in the provinces: in the Ardennes, Cognac, Toulouse, Marseille, Pau. One person was seriously injured in Tour, but the demonstrations were generally peaceful outside the capital.
This extreme violence is where we come to the “third act” of the yellow vest movement, whose mobilization numbers are sharply declining: 75,000 demonstrators across France (there were almost 300,000 on the first day of protest) and 5,500 in Paris. The authorities speak of a “climate of insurrection,” while carefully maintaining the distinction between the yellow vests and the thugs. There are some who say the violence was a response to the actions of the police, which facilitated radicalization. According to the government, most of the thugs are part of splinter groups of the extreme right.
What now? Saturday was the time to comment on the violence; today, politics must come into play. Emmanuel Macron returned to France, after he reacted at the G20 in Buenos Aires saying that what had happened in Paris “has nothing to do with the peaceful expression of legitimate anger.”
In the afternoon, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe denounced the “violence never seen before.” He said he was “shocked” to see “the symbols of the Republic,” such as the Arc de Triomphe, under attack, and guaranteed “freedom of expression” but “in accordance with the law and the procedures that ensure collective freedom.”
Now, what is necessary is a strong political response. Until Saturday the protest was supported by 80 percent of the population. Among the opposition, some are even talking about early elections, while protesters repeatedly shouted “Macron, resign!”
It won’t be enough for the government to roll back the increase in fuel taxes, the spark that triggered the revolt of the yellow vests; nor will the regional meetings to take place over the next three months be enough. The yellow vests are diverse and hard to pin down: among their 42 demands to the government there are contradictory propositions, ranging from a substantial increase in the minimum wage (a demand supported by the left) to a reduction in employers’ contributions, and from an overall lowering of taxes to the reintroduction of a tax on financial investments. (This did not stop Marine Le Pen from claiming, falsely, that most of them were in her presidential program.)
Underlying everything is the demand for more money, with lower taxes and higher wages. And their Ras-le-bol also means that they are fed up with the contempt with which the lower and middle classes feel they are being treated by the central government.
On Saturday, in Paris, there was also a manifestation by the CGT (General Confederacy of Labor) against unemployment and job insecurity, which recurs every year in early December. A number of yellow vests joined them, but only a few. The secretary of the CGT, Philippe Martinez, noted that “the violence is discrediting the social movement.” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France Insoumise (who did not come to Paris, contrary to his prior announcement), chose to downplay the violence, blaming it in a tweet on “the incredible carnage against peaceful demonstrators at Place de l’Étoile” because “the government seeks a severe incident in order to play on people’s fears.” All the while, the mayor of Paris, the Socialist Anne Hidalgo, expressed her “indignation” and “great sadness.”