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Worst riot in a decade engulfs Paris; Macron vows action

PARIS, FRANCE - DECEMBER 01: Teargas surrounds protesters as they clash with riot police during a 'Yellow Vest' demonstration near the Arc de Triomphe on December 1, 2018 in Paris, France. The third 'Yellow Vest' (gilets jaunes) rally in Paris over increased fuel taxes and leadership in the government today caused over 150 arrests in the city with reports of injuries to protesters and security forces from violence that irrupted from the clashes. (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)
Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images
Teargas surrounded protesters as they clashed with riot police during a demonstration near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris Saturday.

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron returned to France on Sunday from a summit in Argentina to find his country in turmoil after a day of violent protests, surveying the destruction for himself even as his government weighed declaring a state of emergency.

A third weekend of nationwide protests by the “Yellow Vests” movement, largely made up of working-class people angry about a planned increase in fuel taxes, left burned cars and smashed store windows in several of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Paris.

Broken glass and empty tear gas canisters fired by police littered Paris, where hundreds of vandals joined the ranks of the protesters. One person died in the unrest this weekend, bringing to three the number of casualties on the margins of the demonstrations over the last three weeks.

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More than 260 people were wounded nationwide, at least 133 of them in Paris, according to the prefecture of police. Some were bystanders caught in the fray who needed treatment after exposure to tear gas. About 412 people were arrested nationwide.

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The interior minister, Christophe Castaner, said Sunday that the government might declare a state of emergency. The president has emergency powers that were expanded after the terrorist attacks of November 2015.

“It is out of the question that each weekend becomes a ritual of violence,” a government spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, said in an interview on Europe 1.

The Élysée Palace said Sunday that Macron would not comment on the protests. But he did visit one of the worst-hit streets, the Avenue du Kleber, where he was both booed and cheered. He also inspected the damage to the Arc de Triomphe, where supporters of the Yellow Vests had scrawled messages. He climbed to the top of the monument, which was ringed with hundreds of police officers and special riot squads.

The graffiti seemed targeted at Macron, who has been described as the “president of the rich.”

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“We’ve chopped off heads for less than this,” read one scrawl in a reference to the French Revolution of 1789. “Topple the Bougeoisie.” “The Yellow Vests Will Triumph.” “May 1968, December 2018.”

The last message appeared to link the current protests with the nationwide strikes and fights with police in 1968 that resulted in major social changes and compromises with workers.

Evidence of the protesters’ anger was manifested in the many streets that fan out from the Arc de Triomphe, which dominates one end of the Champs-Élysées. Vandals also targeted the wealthy area around the Church of St.-Augustin, just off Avenue Haussmann, a major shopping street with famous department stores like Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayette.

The flagship Chanel store windows were shattered, as were those of several supermarkets. Looters appeared to have stolen beer from a grocery store on Avenue Hoche, leaving the bottles and boxes on the street. Planters had been dragged from cafes, overturned and used as barricades.

Of those arrested, 378 were still being held Sunday for questioning. The Interior Ministry said protests this weekend had drawn 136,000 people nationwide, slightly down from the 166,000 who gathered last week.

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Macron, who was in Argentina for the Group of 20 conference, returned early Sunday and immediately applauded police and went to see the damage along Avenue Kleber, a major artery in the high-end 16th Arrondissement.

Politicians and law enforcement officials alike said that the situation was close to an “insurrection.”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far left, and Marine Le Pen, his counterpart on the far right, both called for the dissolution of the National Assembly. Such a move would force the government to call parliamentary elections, putting Macron’s majority at risk.

“We are in a situation that is almost insurrectional,” Mélenchon said in an interview on BFM-TV, a major network. “These are pages in the history of France comparable to 1968. Everything must be dealt with by having a larger perspective.”

“The president has chosen the worst: counting on the degradation” of the Yellow Vest movement, Mélenchon added, blaming the president for not meeting with representatives of the protesters Sunday.