Yellow vest protests: Violence returns to streets of Paris

French riot police forces stand behind a burning barricade on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on March 16, 2019, during the 18th consecutive Saturday of demonstrations called by the Yellow Vest (gilets jaunes) movement.Image copyright

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A fire burns on the Champs-Elysees in Paris during Saturday’s protests

Demonstrators have looted shops in Paris in a resurgence of the Gilets jaunes (“yellow vest”) protests that started four months ago in France.

The protests began over fuel tax rises but have since developed into a broader revolt against perceived elitism.

Police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse the protesters, who had dwindled in numbers in recent weeks before Saturday’s uptick.

Protesters threw cobblestones at police at the Arc de Triomphe war memorial.

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A “yellow vest” protester gestures in front of a burning newsagent on the Champs-Elysees

As well as a surge in numbers on Saturday, there was a return to the levels of violence that characterised some of the earlier protests. Shops including a Boss menswear store were ransacked and fires were lit in the streets, with at least one car set ablaze.

A bank branch was also set alight, and police said they had arrested more than 80 protesters by mid-afternoon.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said that more than 1,400 police officers had been mobilised and he had given an order to respond to the “unacceptable attacks with the greatest firmness”.

“Let there be no doubt: they are looking for violence and are there to sow chaos in Paris,” Mr Castaner said in a tweet.

He said the protests still remained small compared with the early days of the movement, with an estimated 8,000 people on the streets on Saturday. “But within this 8,000, there are more than 1,500 ultra violent people who are there just to smash things up, to fight and to attack,” he said.

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Demonstrators throw cobblestones at police during clashes near the Arc de Triomphe

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In January, the government ordered police to crack down on violence in the protests, leading to complaints of police brutality.

President Emmanuel Macron offered concessions to the protesters after the movement swept the nation – including €10bn (£8.5bn; $11bn) designed to boost the incomes of the poorest workers and pensioners – but they failed to quell the discontent.

For the past month, Mr Macron has toured France, listening to local mayors and citizens as part of his “grand débat” – a big national debate. He has also asked communities to come together and put forward their ideas for how to fix France, and there have so far been 8,253 local meetings.

Anti-Semitism allegations

The yellow vest movement has faced accusations of anti-Semitism in recent weeks after a prominent Jewish philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, was targeted by insults and taunts in Paris.

Officers in Paris intervened to form a barrier after a group of individuals involved in the march confronted Mr Finkielkraut and started verbally insulting him.

The 69-year-old academic told Le Parisien newspaper that he heard people shouting “dirty Zionist” and “throw yourself in the canal”.

A few days before Mr Finkielkraut was attacked, official data suggested there had been a 74% rise in anti-Semitic attacks in France last year.