Police and anti-government protesters clashed near the Champs-Elysees and in other parts of central Paris Saturday with demonstrators hurling rocks and paint at riot police who responded with tear gas.
The clashes came as thousands took part in a third weekend of “yellow vest” protests which have morphed from anger over fuel taxes into a broader anti-government movement.
Crowds of protesters gathering at the Arc de Triomphe earlier found the Champs-Elysees locked down with police manning barricades and water cannon.
While several dozen were allowed through after an ID check and search, many others — some wearing gas masks or ski goggles — remained behind and fought with police who fired rounds of tear gas.
Spreading from the Champs-Elysees, protesters led police on cat-and-mouse chases through other parts of the capital, setting light to cars and construction equipment.
Authorities said 160 people had been arrested by the afternoon and 65 people injured, including eleven of the 5,000 police officers mobilised for the protests.
An estimated 75,000 demonstrators were counted across the country as of 3:00 pm, the interior ministry said, which for the most part remained calm.
The number was well below the first day of protests on November 17, which attracted around 282,000 people, and also down from the 106,000 who turned out last Saturday.
Dark plumes of smoke in several parts of Paris, however, were testament to the escalation in violence, to the consternation of many of the “yellow vests”, so-called for the high-visibility jackets they wear.
“We’re a peaceful movement, but we’re disorganised — it’s a mess because we don’t have a leader,” said Dan Lodi, a 68-year-old pensioner on the Champs-Elysees. “You always have some idiots who come to fight, but they don’t represent us at all,” he said.
Stores and restaurants along the Champs-Elysees as well as surrounding streets had boarded up windows, anticipating a repeat of the clashes last Saturday which President Emmanuel Macron compared to “war scenes”.
Chantal, a 61-year-old pensioner who came from an eastern Paris suburb, said she was avoiding the “hooligans” but was determined to send Macron a message on the rising costs of living.
“He has to come down off his pedestal,” she said under cold rain on the Champs-Elysees. “Every month I have to dip into my savings.” Others voiced indignation at graffiti sprayed on the Arc de Triomphe, a monument to French war dead, including phrases like “Macron resign” and “the yellow vests triumph”.
Although police managed to clear the square around the Arc de Triomphe toward midday, sporadic clashes spilled into nearby neighbourhoods, and hundreds of protesters later returned to the square.
But further down on the Champs-Elysees, several hundred people marched calmly behind a huge yellow-and-red banner reading “Macron, stop taking us for idiots!” “With all these tax hikes, there’s not much left for eating at the end of the month,” said Philippe, a high school cook in the Essonne region outside Paris.
The “yellow vest” movement erupted on social media in October and has since become a wider protest against Macron, who is accused of failing to recognise the rising cost of living that has left many struggling.
The countrywide protests have included many pensioners and have been most active in small urban and rural areas where demonstrators blocked roads, closed motorway toll booths, and even walled up the entrance to tax offices.
Two people have died and dozens have been injured in the protests, which opinion polls suggest still attract the support of two out of three French people.
Attempts by the government to negotiate with the grassroots movement have failed, in large part because representatives have insisted on public talks broadcast on TV.
“We want our dignity back and we want to be able to live from our work, which is absolutely not the case today,” Jason Herbert said after walking out of talks with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Friday.
Macron has sought to douse the anger by promising three months of nationwide talks on how best to transform France into a low-carbon economy without penalising the poor.
He also vowed to slow the rate of increase in fuel taxes if international oil prices rise too rapidly but only after a tax hike due in January.
But many protesters were unconvinced by Macron’s speech on Tuesday.
“For two weeks we’ve been trying to make ourselves heard but nothing has changed,” said Gaetan Kerr, a 52-year-old farmer from the Yonne region, said near the Champs-Elysees on Saturday.
“At some point Macron is going to have to listen, otherwise this is going to get worse and worse.