Rioters in Paris torched motorbikes and set barricades ablaze on the upmarket Boulevard Saint Germain on Saturday, as protests against high living costs and the perceived indifference of President Emmanuel Macron turned violent on the fringes.
The latest “yellow vest” street marches began peacefully in the French capital but degenerated in the afternoon as protesters threw missiles at riot police blocking bridges over the Seine river.
Officers fired tear gas to prevent protesters crossing the river and reaching the National Assembly. One riverboat restaurant was set ablaze and a policeman wounded when he was struck by a bicycle hurled from a street above the riverbank.
Two months after they started blocking roads, occupying highway tollbooths and staging sometimes-violent street protests in Paris, the yellow vests wanted to inject new momentum into a movement that weakened over the holidays.
Macron’s government, shaken by the unrest, had this week hardened its stance against the uprising, branding the protesters as agitators seeking to overthrow the government.
Driving the unrest is anger particularly among low-paid workers over a squeeze on household incomes and a belief that Macron is deaf to citizens’ needs as he enacts reforms seen as favoring the wealthy.
“They have no right to leave us in the s**t like this,” said protester Francois Cordier. “We’re fed up with having to pay out the whole time, we’ve had enough of this slavery, we should be able to live on our salaries.”
Thousands more rallied in cities including Bordeaux and Toulouse in southwest France, Rouen in the north of the country and Marseille in the southeast.
An estimated 25,000 took to the streets nationwide in what was dubbed Act VIII, BFM TV reported, barely 10 percent of the number in the first weeks of protests but higher than last week.
“POWER TO THE PEOPLE”
As darkness fell, officers dispersed scores of yellow vests gathered on the Champs Elysees. Television images showed hooded youths setting a car alight on a side street, but there was no repeat of the unrest that erupted in late November, when shops were looted, banks vandalized and the Arc de Triomphe defaced.
Authorities have blamed the worst of the violence in recent weeks on anarchists, anti-capitalists and extreme groups on the fringes of the yellow vest movement.
The protests which come 18 months into Macron’s tenure and his drive to reshape the economy have already forced concessions from the 41-year-old president.
Last month, Macron promised tax cuts for pensioners, wage rises for the poorest workers and the scrapping of planned fuel tax increases to quell the unrest at a cost to the Treasury of 10 billion euros ($11 billion).
The measures marked the first big U-turn for a president elected 18 months earlier on a platform to break with traditional French politics and liberalize the heavily-regulated economy.
In a New Year’s Eve address, Macron vowed to press on with his reform agenda, saying: “We can’t work less, earn more, cut taxes and increase spending.”
Faced with record low popularity ratings, Macron is expected to pen a letter soon to the nation setting out his plans for coming months. These include a nationwide debate with citizens on ecological, fiscal and institutional questions, the results of which he says will feed into the policy-making process.
“We have to give power back to the people and not a minority that serves its own interests,” said a second yellow vest protester outside the old stock market building.
SOURCE: Reuters, by Richard Lough, Elizabeth Pineau