A fourth weekend of protests in France turned violent once again on Saturday, with demonstrators in Paris laying siege to the city; burning cars and ripping down barricades from store fronts, while the 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.
Nearly 1,400 people were arrested nationwide. In Paris, many were detained before they could even reach the central site of the demonstrations along Paris’s main artery, the Champs-Élysées.
The huge police presence in the capital — absent last Saturday — appeared far more able to contain the violence. The show of force reflected a change from preceding weeks, with law enforcement often engaging with the vandals before they could act.
“The situation is under control even though there are still some hot spots in the provinces,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said Saturday evening.
“The escalation of violence has been brought to a stopping point,” he added, crediting the more mobile strategy of the police. The violence, while contained, was “totally unacceptable,” he said.
The minister said 118 demonstrators and 17 police officers were injured nationwide on Saturday. Last week, about 200 protesters were injured, as well as more than 200 police officers, the interior ministry said.
Since the demonstrations began four weeks ago, four people have died.
The Yellow Vests take their name from the fluorescent hazard vests adopted by the protesters as a sign of their economic distress.
In the beginning, their ranks were filled by members of the working poor from rural areas and urban outskirts, who were 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.
By midafternoon in Paris, more radical elements and professional vandal, known as “casseurs,” or “breakers”, had ripped down plywood barricades that had been placed over the windows of nearly every business in hopes of preventing smashing and looting. Reminiscent of AnTifa.
The Champs-Élysées was quickly covered in tear gas, and hundreds of people beat a hasty retreat down the avenue.
In some areas, the casseurs — young men dressed in black — could easily be distinguished from the Yellow Vests, often middle-aged men from the countryside.
In at least two instances on the Champs-Élysées, Yellow Vests replaced protective boards ripped down from shop windows by the casseurs.
And Yellow Vests looked on in horror and shock as vandals smashed in the windows of a sporting-goods store and made off with boxes of sneakers on an avenue 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 onlookers looked disgusted.
As protesters were smashing in windows with golf clubs, an ambulance driver and Yellow Vest who gave her name only as Stephanie said: “Sure it’s sad. But if it hadn’t come to this, nothing would change.”
The skirmishes were punctuated by shouts of “Macron Resign,” impromptu bursts of the French national anthem, and curses spat at the police and members of the news media.
Elsewhere in the city, a car burned out of control as the police moved in to chase away the vandals. A line of armored vehicles moved down a boulevard, trying to disperse stone-throwing casseurs and to break up barricades.
Police officers on horseback charged a group of vandals set to wreak havoc on a business-lined street at the edge of the historic Marais district.
At the start of the day in Paris, eight police vehicles blocked access to the Arc de Triomphe, a sacred national symbol that was defaced last weekend.
The police also showed up on 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. Stores and dozens of city buildings as well as most monuments and museums were closed, even those far from the protest areas, including the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay.
The city’s two opera houses canceled Saturday shows. More than 35 subway stops were closed.
City workers removed more than 2,000 metal gratings, construction barriers and other items to prevent them from being used as weapons or as barricades. Officials also recommended that people move their vehicles and bicycles from protest areas. Residents of many wealthier neighborhoods in Paris left as a precaution.
Elsewhere in France, the authorities also took steps to prevent 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.
Throughout Saturday, the drive of the protesters in Paris did not change, nor had 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,” he continued. “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,” she said. “There are taxes on everything, gas.”
“At the Élysée,’’ she added, referring to the presidential palace, ‘‘they spend 300,000 euros on carpeting, 10,000 a month for the hairdresser.’’