12-1-18 5:05 PM EST | Email Article
By Matthew Dalton and Stacy Meichtry 

PARIS -- Rioting erupted in the heart of the French capital Saturday, as protests against President Emmanuel Macron morphed into melees that left burning cars and shattered storefronts across one of the city's most upscale neighborhoods.

The demonstrations, among the most destructive to hit Paris in recent decades, signal the depth of public opposition facing Mr. Macron as he moves to enact sweeping overhauls of the French economy. A protest movement of "gilet jaunes," or yellow vests, has ridden a wave of popular discontent with the French leader to become the most potent threat yet to his young presidency.

While France is accustomed to sometimes violent protests in the working class suburbs of Paris, Saturday's rioting occurred in the streets around the Champs-Élysées, a magnet for tourists and the wealthy. The area on Saturday would normally be thronged with holiday shoppers. Instead, stores closed en masse and boarded up their windows as they braced for the demonstrators.

Thousands of gilets jaunes surrounded the Arch de Triomphe at the end of the Champs-Élysées, where some spray painted "Macron Resign" and other slogans on the monument.

"I am shocked to see the symbols of France targeted," said Prime Minister Édouard Philippe.

Riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the protesters into the surrounding streets. Some responded by throwing firecrackers and other projectiles.

Most of the people who gathered Saturday were there to protest peacefully, but they were overshadowed by groups of rabble-rousers, some with their faces masked.

As darkness fell, bands of young men began to overturn cars in side streets and light them on fire. Groups of protesters -- some wearing yellow vests, others not -- were seen using shovels to smash storefronts and car windows along Avenue Kléber, home to some of the French capital's fanciest hotels. Some of the gilets jaunes cheered, while others looked on shaking their heads.

Mr. Macron, attending the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, addressed the violence playing out back home. "What happened today in Paris has nothing to do with peaceful expression of legitimate anger," Mr. Macron said at a press conference. "I will always listen to the opposition, but I will never accept violence."

Police arrested more than 260 people during the protests Saturday. Officials sought to distinguish them from the broader gilets-jaunes protest movement, identifying some as far-right and far-left extremists who are known for stirring up trouble at demonstrations.

The destruction shook France's political class, drawing condemnation from across the political spectrum.

"Rioters have set off insurrection in Paris," said Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Rally party, on Twitter. "Dear #giletsjaunes, you must leave so that law enforcement can intervene."

The gilets jaunes protests sprung up in response to Mr. Macron's proposal to raise taxes on diesel fuel. But they have morphed into a broad antigovernment movement for those who say Mr. Macron's policies favor the wealthy and punish the working class.

The havoc enveloping Champs-Élysées marked the third consecutive weekend of protests across France as the gilets jaunes press Mr. Macron to reverse course.

Polls show that three-quarters of the French public support the yellow vests. Mr. Macron's approval rating has fallen below 30% as the movement has gathered momentum over the past month.

"Macron taxes people like us," said Cyril Goursaud, a factory worker from the city of Limoges who traveled to Paris for Saturday's protests. "Anything to make the rich more rich, he does."

Saturday's protest appeared smaller than those of previous weekends, with police estimating turnout in the tens of thousands across France. Protests elsewhere in the country appeared largely peaceful.

Still, demonstrators dominated the streets and airwaves by swarming the Arc de Triomphe and torching cars in the surrounding neighborhoods. Barricades built in the middle of the city's tree-lined avenues were also lighted ablaze, sending black plumes above the Parisian skyline.

As police cut off protesters from the Arc de Triomphe, mayhem spread to surrounding areas. Smoke from burning cars soon enveloped nearby streets, and cafes quickly closed.

TV images showed protesters occupying a stretch of the Rue de Rivoli that borders the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre museum, smashing a shop window and setting trash on fire.

Such scenes are likely to test the resolve of Mr. Macron, who has refused to back down from his fuel-tax increase as well as his pro-business overhaul of France's economy.

Mr. Macron is able to forge ahead because his party, Republic on the Move, has a commanding majority in Parliament. But a handful of lawmakers in his party have begun to publicly question his stance on the fuel tax. Mr. Macron, a former investment banker, is also under pressure to counter opponents who have branded him the "president of the rich."

"He wants to reform, and we need to reform, but we went too fast," said Republic on the Move lawmaker Patrick Vignal, who is calling for temporary freeze on fuel-tax increases.

Disillusionment with French politics runs deep among the gilets jaunes, who say neither the left nor the right understands how difficult it is for ordinary French people to make ends meet. Many, like Clementine Marette, voted "blanc" in the 2017 presidential election, meaning they cast a vote for no one.

"Our politicians don't even know the price of a pain au chocolat," Ms. Marette said, staring warily at a line of riot police during Saturday's protest.

Noemie Bisserbe contributed to this article.

Write to Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com and Stacy Meichtry at stacy.meichtry@wsj.com


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 01, 2018 17:05 ET (22:05 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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