French president Emmanuel Macron has come under renewed pressure after another weekend of anti-government protests erupted into violence, with looters smashing scores of shops and setting fire to a restaurant in central Paris.
Mr Macron was forced to cut short a skiing holiday and return to the capital as an 18th consecutive Saturday of demonstrations by the gilets jaunes or yellow vests turned into a riot on the Champs-Elysées. After violent protests threatened to derail his reform drive late last year, the president regained the political initiative with increases in pensions and in-work benefits and a nationwide debate on tax and public services. Saturday’s events have once again put him on the defensive, suggesting the debate has failed to defuse public anger and with opposition leaders decrying a breakdown in law and order.
“What happened today on the Champs-Elysées is no longer a demonstration,” Mr Macron said at an emergency meeting with ministers on Saturday on his return from the mountains. “All those who were on the avenue were “complicit in this”, he added. “Many things have been done since November, but today shows that on these matters we are not there. I want to make strong decisions as soon as possible so that this does not happen.”
Prime minister Edouard Philippe and Christophe Castaner, interior minister, are due to discuss new security measures later on Sunday.
Police made nearly 240 arrests during Saturday’s unrest, during which nearly 80 shops and restaurants including the historic brasserie Fouquet’s were burnt, looted or vandalised. Protesters threw stones at police, who fired tear gas and water cannon. There were claims the violence was committed by professional criminals masquerading as demonstrators. In total an estimated 32,000 gilets jaunes marched throughout France on Saturday, including 10,000 in Paris. The interior ministry said it identified about 1,500 demonstrators as violent.
The gilets jaunes movement began as an online protest against rising fuel taxes but quickly morphed into a wide-ranging revolt against higher taxes, declining living standards, and the president himself. In December last year, Mr Macron announced a €10bn package of economic measures aimed at defusing the protests and in January he embarked on a countrywide tour to hear the French people’s grievances as part of a nationwide consultation.
There were early signs that the great national debate had been a political success for Mr Macron, two months ahead of the European elections in May. Opinions polls before Saturday’s violence showed that he had recovered all the ground he lost after the first gilets jaunes demonstration in November.
However, the levels of violence on Saturday — which kicked off as Mr Macron was enjoying the ski slopes in the Pyrenees — prompted a new round of criticism from rivals.
The head of The Republicans, Laurent Wauquiez, said on Twitter: “A Saturday of more violence that is allowed to degenerate in the heart of our capital. It is time to react. It’s time to act.”
Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris, asked to meet the prime minister Edouard Philippe “in order to discuss with him the measures he plans to take out of the crisis and protect Paris”.
Thierry Paul Valette, one of the self-professed leaders of the gilets jaunes movement and a candidate in the European elections, said he was dissociating himself “from these acts of extremely serious violence,” while calling for urgent action by Mr Macron to find a way out of the crisis.