PARIS (Reuters) – Anti-government protesters faced off with French riot police in Paris on Saturday, hurling projectiles, torching cars and vandalizing shops and restaurants in a fourth weekend of unrest that has shaken President Emmanuel Macron’s authority.
Authorities said there were an estimated 8,000 protesters in Paris around midday and some 90,000 across the country with more than 50 people reported injured, including three police officers.
Named after the fluorescent safety vests that French motorists must carry, the “yellow vest” protests erupted out of nowhere on Nov. 17, when nearly 300,000 demonstrators nationwide took to the streets to denounce high living costs and Macron’s liberal economic reforms.
Demonstrators say the reforms favor the wealthy and do nothing to help the poor and billed Saturday’s demonstrations “Act IV” of their protest after three consecutive Saturdays of rioting.
The government this week canceled a planned rise in taxes on petrol and diesel in a bid to defuse the situation but the protests have morphed into a broader anti-Macron rebellion.
The protest movement has spawned a “monster”, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said on Friday.
In a massive security operation, nearly 90,000 police were deployed nationwide to forestall a repeat of last Saturday’s destructive mayhem.
Officers in Paris, backed up by armored vehicles, arrested more than 550 people after police found potential weapons such as hammers and baseball bats on them.
Skirmishes also broke out between protesters and police in Lyon, Marseille and Toulouse.
Police used tear gas, water cannon and horses to charge the protesters on roads fanning out from the Champs Elysees boulevard. A week ago, rioters ran amok in worst unrest seen in the capital since the 1968 student riots.
Swathes of Paris’ affluent Right Bank north of the Seine river were locked down, with luxury boutiques boarded up, department stores closed and restaurants and cafes shuttered. The Louvre, Eiffel Tower and Opera house were also closed.
The government had warned that far-right, anarchist and anticapitalist groups would likely again infiltrate the protest movement and many of the skirmishes saw police tackling gangs of hooded youths, some of them covering their faces with masks.
“It feels like order is being better maintained this week,” Jean-Francois Barnaba, one of the yellow vests’ unofficial spokesmen, told Reuters.
“Last week the police were tear-gassing us indiscriminately. This time their actions are more targeted,” he added.
Others were critical of the policing.
“We were on our knees and they shot tear gas at us. I am telling you, things are going to blow up tonight,” said Yanis Areg, 21, from Paris suburb Montfermeil.
One police source told Reuters he feared that things would get out of hand after nightfall.
As darkness fell over the capital, mobs of protesters squared off against police on the Champs Elysees. Riot police moved quickly among them and clamped down on anyone trying to damage shops or public amenities.
On the smashed up front of one Starbucks cafe, vandals scrawled: “No fiscal justice, no social justice.”
The government this week offered sweeteners to soothe public anger, first scrapping next year’s planned hikes to fuel taxes in the first major U-turn of Macron’s presidency. It will cost the Treasury 4 billion euros ($4.5 billion).
But protesters want Macron to go further to help hard-pressed households, including an increase to the minimum wage, lower taxes, higher salaries, cheaper energy, better retirement benefits and even Macron’s resignation.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Saturday urged calm, a message heeded by some protesters.
“We have come here for a peaceful march, not to smash things. We want equality, we want to live, not survive,” said Guillaume Le Grac, 28, who works in a slaughterhouse in Britanny.
The protests are jeopardizing a fragile economic recovery in France just as the Christmas holiday season kicks off.
Retailers have lost an estimated one billion euros in revenue since the protests erupted and shares in airlines, retailers, hotels and airlines suffered their worst week in months.
“It’s a little disappointing but Paris is such a wonderful city,” said South Korean tourist Yeeun Lee. “We’re a bit worried, we’re not used to this sort of thing.”
Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Sybille de la Hamaide, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Simon Carraud, Matthias Blamont, Marine Pennetier, Benoit Tessier and Michaela Cabrera; writing by Geert De Clercq and Richard Lough; editing by Gareth Jones and Jason Neely