French protesters riot in Paris, accuse Macron of "hot air"
By THOMAS ADAMSON and ANGELA CHARLTON Associated Press
PARIS (AP) — French yellow vest protesters set life-threatening fires, smashed up luxury stores in Paris and clashed with police Saturday in the 18th straight weekend of demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron. Large plumes of smoke rose above the rioting on Paris' landmark Champs-Elysees avenue, and a mother and her child were just barely saved from a building blaze.
Cobblestones flew in the air and smoke from fires set by protesters mingled with clouds of tear gas sprayed by police, as tensions continued for hours along the Champs-Elysees. By dusk, as the demonstrators had dispersed, the famed avenue was a blackened expanse.
The resurgent violence comes at a watershed moment for a movement, which had been fizzling in recent weeks, and at the end of a two-month-long national debate called by Macron that protesters say failed to answer their demands for economic justice.
Police appeared to be caught off guard by the speed and severity of Saturday's unrest. French riot police tried to contain the demonstrators with repeated volleys of tear gas and water cannon, with limited success.
One arson fire targeted a bank near the Champs-Elysees on the ground floor of a seven-story residential building. A mother and her child had to be rescued just as the fire threatened to engulf their floor, Paris' fire service told The Associated Press. Eleven people in the building, including two firefighters, sustained light injuries.
A 43-year-old German factory worker who identified himself only as Peter had traveled to Paris to show solidarity with yellow vest protesters. Standing Saturday outside the burned-out bank, he said he agreed with the destruction, calling banks "the biggest problem in the world."
Protest organizers had hoped to make a splash Saturday, which marks the 4-month anniversary of the yellow vest movement, which started Nov. 17, and the end of the "Great Debate" that the French president organized to respond to protesters' concerns about sinking living standards, stagnant wages and high unemployment.
They claimed Macron failed in that aim.
"It was hot air. It was useless and it didn't achieve anything. We're here to show Macron that empty words are not enough," said yellow vest demonstrator Frank Leblanc, 62, from Nantes.
"We're marking the end of the great debate ... Macron has given us no great solutions," said protester Francine Sevigny from Lyon.
Others praised the violence that tore through Paris.
"I'm glad there are the thugs, because without them our movement wouldn't get any attention. We need the violence so we can be heard," said Marie, a mother of two from Seine-et-Marne who wouldn't give her surname.
The violence started minutes after the protesters gathered Saturday, when they threw smoke bombs and other objects at officers along the Champs-Elysees — the scene of repeated past rioting — and started pounding on the windows of a police van.
Simultaneous fires were also put out from two burning newspaper kiosks, which sent black smoke high into the sky. Several protesters posed for a photo in front of one charred kiosk.
Demonstrators also targeted symbols of the luxury industry, smashing and pillaging shops including brands Hugo Boss and Lacoste, and tossing mannequins out of broken windows. A posh eatery called Fouquet's, which is associated with politicians and celebrities, was vandalized and set on fire. A vehicle burned outside the luxury boutique Kenzo, one of many blazes on and around the Champs-Elysees.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, who inspected the damage Saturday evening on the Champs-Elysees, said an estimated 10,000 yellow vest protesters were in Paris and another 4,500 had demonstrated around France. He also said the Paris crowd included 1,500 "ultraviolent ones who are there to smash things up."
Still, the numbers paled beside the 30,000 people who took part in a separate peaceful climate march in Paris at the same time, according to Castaner.
And the number of yellow vest protesters remains smaller than early in the movement, when it drew masses to the streets nationwide and polled showed a majority of French people supporting their cause. Since then, repeated rioting by the protesters and economic concessions by Macron have diminished public support for the yellow vests.
Paris police told the AP that 192 people were arrested in Paris on Saturday and 60 others were injured, 18 of them police and firefighters.
The yellow vest groups represented teachers, unemployed people and labor unions. While the rioters drew most attention Saturday, most of the protesters in Paris remain peaceful.
Chris den Hond, Milos Krivokapic, Catherine Gaschka and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed.