PARIS – France’s most violent urban riot in more than a decade engulfed some of central Paris on Saturday as “yellow jacket” activists torched cars, smashed windows, looted stores and tagged the Arc de Triomphe with multicolored graffiti.
Protesters angry about rising taxes and the high cost of living clashed with riot police, who closed off some of the city’s most popular tourist areas and fired tear gas and water cannons as they tried to quell the mayhem in the streets. At least 133 people were injured.
French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the violence from the G20 summit in Argentina, saying those who attacked police and vandalized the Arc de Triomphe will be “held responsible for their acts.” He said he will hold an emergency government meeting Sunday on the protests.
“(Violence) has nothing to do with the peaceful expression of a legitimate anger” and “no cause justifies” attacks on police or pillaging stores and burning buildings, Macron said in Buenos Aires.
It was the third straight weekend of clashes in Paris involving activists dressed in the fluorescent yellow vests of a new protest movement and was the worst urban violence since at least 2005. Demonstrations and road blockades elsewhere were largely peaceful Saturday.
The violence is Macron’s biggest challenge so far as president, and colored his international image as he defended his plans for fuel tax rises — the initial impetus for the protest movement — to other leaders at the G20 summit.
France’s failure to quell the anger has led to copycat yellow-jacket movements in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
Thousands of police were deployed to try to contain the violence, which began Saturday morning near the Arc de Triomphe and continued well after dark. Police said at least 110 people, including 20 police officers, were injured and 412 others were arrested.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said one protester was in a life-threatening condition after being part of a group pulling down a metal fence at the Tuileries gardens; the heavy fence fell on some of the protesters.
By the afternoon, the clashes had continued down several streets popular with tourists. Pockets of demonstrators built barricades in the middle of the streets, lit fires, torched cars and trash cans, threw rocks at police and smashed and looted stores.
Some demonstrators removed the barriers protecting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I under the Arc de Triomphe monument to pose near its eternal flame and sing the national anthem.
A reporter at the scene saw other protesters and a soldier intervene to disperse the troublemakers and protect the eternal flame. Police later fired tear gas in the area.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tweeted her “indignation” and “deep sadness” at the destruction and clashes with police, saying that violence is “not acceptable.”
In addition to rising taxes, the demonstrators are furious about Macron’s leadership, saying his government does not care about the problems of ordinary people. The grassroots protests began with motorists upset over a fuel tax hike, but now involve a broad range of demands related to France’s high cost of living.
The violence in Paris suggests that some protests have been taken over by far-right or far-left groups.
In a tweet, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen urged the protesters to go home.
French authorities counted 75,000 protesters Saturday across the country, including 5,500 in Paris — numbers that were fewer than the previous week’s protest but produced much more destruction.
Rabah Mendez, a protester who came from a southern suburb to march peacefully in Paris, said, “It’s difficult to reach the end of the month. People work and pay a lot of taxes and we are fed up.”
Paris resident Hedwige Lebrun said: “Our purchasing power is severely diminishing every day. And then: taxes, taxes and taxes. The state is asking us to tighten our belts, but they, on the contrary, live totally above all standards with our money.”
Since the yellow-jacket movement kicked off on Nov. 17, two people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes or accidents stemming from the protests.
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