Calls mounted on Sunday for French President Emmanuel Macron to bring an end to the ‘yellow vest’ crisis gripping France as authorities 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 a ‘catastrophe’ for the French economy, with nationwide roadblocks playing havoc with the traffic and putting off tourists from visiting Paris.
Parts of the capital went on lockdown Saturday, with department stores shut to avoid looting along with museums and monuments including the Eiffel Tower.
Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux vowed that Macron’s centrist administration would find solutions that took into account protestors’ grievances.
They overwhelmingly hail from rural and small-town France but have a range of different goals, from lower taxes to Macron’s resignation.
‘It is clear that we underestimated people’s need to make themselves heard,’ Griveaux told Europe 1 radio.
‘It is anger that is difficult to understand from an office in Paris,’ he acknowledged.
Alain Juppe, mayor of Bordeaux where a protestor lost his hand after picking up an anti-riot grenade, joined calls from across the political spectrum for Macron to respond.
‘This disorder must end,’ the former prime minister tweeted. ‘The president must speak, and speak quickly.’
The embattled president – whose name rang out across the Champs-Elysees as protestors shouted ‘Macron, resign’ — is expected to address the demonstrations in a much-anticipated speech in the coming days.
He had already announced a public consultation to find ways of mollifying the protesters, and is due to meet representatives of trade unions and business groups Monday.
The protests have shown little sign of easing since they began on 17 November.
The interior ministry said 136,000 people took 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.
Nationwide, more than 2,000 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.
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.
But Thibault de Montbrial, head of the CRSI security think tank, warned that strained police could not continue mounting the same kind of operation week after week.
‘The state cannot mobilise such forces every Saturday, and neither can shopkeepers barricade themselves in faced with violence which is not diminishing,’ he tweeted.
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 protestors 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 wealth tax.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen called for Macron to ‘recognise society’s suffering and deliver immediate, very strong responses’.
Russian propaganda accounts?
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 the AFP new agency.
According to Britain’s The 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 protestors from other events to enhance a narrative of brutality by French authorities.