President Emmanuel Macron rushed to the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday after one of France’s most revered monuments was vandalised by rioters, with the government considering a state of emergency after the worst bout of unrest for years.
Masked, black-clad groups ran amok across central Paris on Saturday, torching dozens of cars and buildings, looting shops, smashing windows and fighting police in the worst unrest the capital has seen since 1968, posing the most formidable challenge Emmanuel Macron has faced in his 18-month-old presidency.
Macron and key ministers were to meet later on Sunday to consider declaring an emergency to prevent a recurrence of the riots. The government is open to dialogue but will not change course, spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said.
A popular revolt over fuel tax hikes and high living costs erupted suddenly on November 17 and has spread quickly via social media. Protesters have blocked roads across France and impeded access to shopping malls, factories and some fuel depots.
On his return from the G20 summit in Argentina, Macron paid an immediate visit to the Arc de Triomphe, the 19th-century arch that towers over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and avenues nearby where cars had been torched and luxury shops pillaged.
TV footage showed the interior of the Arc ransacked, a statue of Marianne, symbol of the French republic, smashed, and graffiti scrawled on the exterior ranging from anti-capitalist slogans to social demands and calls for Macron’s resignation.
Under heavy security, the French leader spoke with police and firefighters on one of the avenues near the Champs Elysees boulevard, with some bystanders cheering but more jeering him, including yellow-jacketed protesters chanting, “Macron, resign!”
Meanwhile, workmen in the upper-crust district of central Paris set about cleaning the defaced Arc, removing charred hulks of cars and replacing the shattered windows of banks, restaurants and luxury boutiques.
“We have to think about measures that can be taken so that these incidents don’t happen again,” Griveaux told Europe 1 radio.
The protests began as a backlash against Macron’s fuel tax hikes, but have mined a vein of deep dissatisfaction felt towards his liberal economic reforms, which many voters feel favour the wealthy and big business.
Macron says higher diesel taxes are needed to fight climate change by spurring motorists to drive cleaner cars.
Authorities were caught off guard by Saturday’s escalation in violence overshadowing the spontaneous protest movement, dubbed the “yellow vests” because many participants are wearing the fluorescent safety jackets kept in all cars in France.
In Paris, police said they had arrested more than 400 people while 133 were injured, including 23 members of the security forces. Police fired stun grenades, tear gas and water cannon at protesters at the top of the Champs-Elysees, at the Tuilleries Garden near the Louvre museum, and other sites.
Disturbances also rocked several cities and towns and across France - from Charleville Mezieres in the northeast to Nantes in the west and Marseille in the south.
A driver was killed overnight in an accident at a yellow vest blockade in southeastern France after a car collided with a heavy goods vehicle, the third death since the protest began, a gendarmerie official told Reuters.
Twenty cars, including three police vehicles, were also torched near Narbonne in the southwest, the official said.
Macron’s crisis session with his prime minister and interior minister will assess how to begin dialogue with the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests), who lack real structure or leadership.
When asked about imposing a state of emergency, Griveaux said it would be among the options considered on Sunday.
“It is out of the question that each weekend becomes a meeting or ritual for violence.”
Griveaux urged the yellow vest movement to disassociate itself from radical groups that had instigated the violence, organise itself and come to the negotiating table. However, he ruled out a change in government policy.
“We won’t change course. It’s the right direction. We are certain of that,” he said.
Authorities said violent groups from the far right and far left as well as “thugs” from the suburbs had infiltrated the yellow vests movement in Paris on Saturday, though Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said most of those arrested were regular protesters who had been egged on by fringe groups.