PARIS — A fourth weekend of anti-government protests turned violent Saturday, with demonstrators in Paris ripping down barricades from store fronts and setting vehicles on fire, while riot police fired tear gas and water cannons to control the crowds.
The so-called Yellow Vests descended on the capital by the thousands, even as the police turned out in force, blocking off roads and monuments and arresting more than 700 people, many before they could even reach the main site of the demonstrations along Paris’ main artery, the Champs-Élysées.
Around the country, some 31,000 people took to the streets mostly peacefully, according to authorities, including in cities like Marseille, Nice and Nantes. But in Paris, more hard-core elements hijacked the demonstrations, turning them violent, though short of last weekend’s levels, the country’s worst urban unrest in decades.
The Yellow Vests have been named for the fluorescent hazard vests adopted by the protesters as a sign of their economic distress. Initially, their ranks were filled by members of the working poor from rural areas dismayed by a planned increase in a fuel tax, which the government canceled this past week in a retreat.
But that did not quell the outrage, which has morphed into much broader anger at President Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies, and France’s declining living standards.
The Yellow Vests have now inspired copycat demonstrations elsewhere, including in the Netherlands, Hungary and neighboring Belgium, where about 100 people were detained Saturday as police used tear gas and water cannons against about a thousand or more protesters who threw stones and smashed street signs and traffic lights.
In France, Saturday was a pivotal day, as all of the country waited to see if, in the wake of Macron’s concession, the largely leaderless and unstructured Yellow Vests movement would fizzle or fracture — or perhaps become more emboldened.
The day fulfilled some of the dire predictions of French officials, who had anticipated smaller, but still violent, protests as more radical elements and professional vandals, called “casseurs,” or “breakers,” exploited the atmosphere of insurrection in pursuit of pulling down the government or engaging in anarchic pleasures.
President Donald Trump weighed in on the demonstrations with a tweet that suggested the protests were related to the Paris climate accord.
“Very sad day & night in Paris. Maybe it’s time to end the ridiculous and extremely expensive Paris Agreement and return money back to the people in the form of lower taxes? The U.S. was way ahead of the curve on that and the only major country where emissions went down last year!” he posted.
By the midafternoon in Paris, the casseurs had ripped down the plywood that had been placed over the windows of nearly every business in hopes of preventing smashing and looting. The Champs-Élysées was quickly covered in tear gas, and hundreds of people beat a hasty retreat down the avenue.
The presence of the vandals increasingly appeared to be provoking a split in the movement, between the bulk of Yellow Vests and the more violent anarchistic elements that have progressively grafted themselves on to it.
In some areas, the casseurs — fit, determined young men dressed in black — could easily be distinguished from the Yellow Vests, often middle-aged men from the countryside.
In at least one instance, on Avenue Marceau, Yellow Vests could be seen replacing protective boards ripped down from shop windows by the casseurs.
The Yellow Vests looked on in horror and bemusement as the vandals smashed in the windows of a sporting-goods store and made off with boxes of sneakers on one of the most chic avenues around the Arc de Triomphe.
“This is just madness,” said a middle-aged Yellow Vest, Franck Morlat, a train driver who had traveled from central France. “Totally unacceptable.” Others around him looked disgusted.
As protesters were smashing in windows with golf clubs on Avenue Marceau, an ambulance driver and Yellow Vest from the Dordogne who gave her name only as Stephanie and was watching the violence said: “Sure it’s sad. But if it hadn’t come to this, nothing would change.”
Demonstrators attempted to set fire to a drugstore on the Champs-Élysées, placing burning Christmas trees against the facade. A line of riot police charged down the avenue, dispersing the crowd and knocking down barricades hastily erected by the crowd.
The melees were punctuated by shouts of “Macron Resign!,” impromptu bursts of the French national anthem, “The Marseillaise,” and curses spat at police and members of the news media.
Elsewhere in the city, on the Boulevard de Courcelles, a car burned out of control as police moved in to disperse the vandals.
A line of armored vehicles moved down the Boulevard Sebastopol, attempting to disperse stone-throwing casseurs and to break up barricades. A similar confrontation took place on Avenue Marceau.
Police officers on horseback charged a group of vandals set to wreak havoc on the business-lined Rue de Bretagne, at the edge of the historic Marais District.
The aggressive police tactic indicated a change of strategy from preceding weeks, with law enforcement clearly engaging with the vandals before they could act.
The huge police presence — absent last Saturday — appeared far more able to contain the violence.
“This time they gave themselves the means to master the casseurs,” said Christian Mouhanna, a police expert at the National Center for Scientific Research. “Why, the last time, did they let the casseurs get away with so much?” Mouhanna asked. “They saw that that strategy didn’t work.”
At the start of the day, eight police vehicles blocked access to the Arc de Triomphe, a quasi-sacred national symbol that was defaced last weekend. The police also hemmed in demonstrators at the other end of the Champs-Élysées, near the seat of the French presidency and the Place de la Concorde.
Police detachments were set up at all major central Paris intersections. Most monuments and museums were closed, even those far from the protest areas, including the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. Residents of many wealthier neighborhoods left the city as a precaution.
Even if the violence and numbers were reduced Saturday, the determination of the protesters did not change, nor has their motivation.
“We drove all night,” said Julien Lezer, an electrician from the Var region, on the Mediterranean. “We don’t agree with the current system anymore; it doesn’t represent us. It’s not in the regions that things change; it’s in Paris. It’s when the people from the regions go to Paris that the politicians listen.”
Axelle Cavalheiro, who works with disabled people, came from the Ain, near Lyon. “We are overtaxed; there are taxes on everything, gas,” he complained. “At the Élysée,'’ he said referring to the presidential palace, “'they spend 300,000 euros on carpeting, 10,000 a month for the hairdresser.”
Since the demonstrations began four weeks ago, four people have died and more than 700 have been wounded. Videos of police being attacked by protesters and of police violence against demonstrators have fueled more tensions on social media.
The number of protesters nationwide has dwindled since the demonstrations began; more than 280,000 people turned out on Nov. 17, and less than half of that on Dec. 1, according to the French authorities.
But the protests have increasingly centered on Paris, where each Saturday has become more violent.
Authorities have been bracing all week. The government voiced concerns about the potential for extreme violence but also appealed for calm, as have politicians from across the political spectrum.
About 89,000 member of the security forces were deployed across the country on Saturday, including 8,000 in Paris, compared with 4,600 a week earlier. In a rare step, the gendarmerie — one of the country’s two national police forces — deployed 12 armored vehicles in the French capital, a sign of the authorities’ nervousness.
Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, said on Friday he was expecting “only a couple of thousand protesters in Paris,” but he warned that they could be “ultraviolent.”
He said police would adopt a more mobile strategy than last week, when authorities created a perimeter around the Champs-Élysées that kept police forces static and prevented them from pursuing rioters.
“Faced with systematic and organized violence, our forces will respond with firmness,” Castaner said.
Precautions were taken across the city. Food markets in the protest areas were called off, high-end department stores were closed, and the city’s two opera houses canceled Saturday’s shows. A planned climate march, which was supposed to be held not far from some of the protest areas, was moved to another part of Paris.
More than 35 subway stops were also closed throughout the city.
City workers removed more than two thousand metal gratings, construction barriers and other items to prevent them from being used as weapons or as barricades, and dozens of city buildings like gymnasiums, cultural centers and stadiums were closed.
City officials also recommended that people move their vehicles and bicycles away from protest areas.
Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, said at a news conference Friday that “the right to demonstrate is in no way the right to assault and to break,” and she called upon everyone to show “caution, calm and composure.”
“It is obviously an immense sadness to see our city partially locked down, but your security is our absolute priority,” she said. “Saturday, take care of Paris, because Paris belongs to all the French.”
Elsewhere in France, authorities also took preventive steps to avoid violence.
The top French soccer league postponed six games across the country, including in Paris, Toulouse, Angers and Nîmes. Museums were closed in Bordeaux, and the city of Lyon took extra security measures for its annual Light Festival.
Tensions have worsened in the past few days as other groups in French society have latched onto the unrest to air their own grievances and begin new protests. Among them are farmers, who are planning to demonstrate all of next week.
High school students protesting the government’s education reforms have drawn the most attention so far.
The police have clashed repeatedly with students blocking schools and burning cars or trash cans, and several students have been seriously injured.
On Friday, politicians, rights advocates and social media users were outraged after a video emerged showing dozens of high school students kneeling on the ground, hands on their heads and surrounded by police.
The Yellow Vest movement has no centralized leadership, and so it was unclear what would happen on Saturday as thousands discussed their options in myriad Facebook groups and comment threads.
Some encouraged protesters not to march in Paris and to protest locally instead, while others insisted that only protests in the capital would force the government to cave in.
Macron, who has been criticized for remaining silent, is expected to publicly address the protests next week.