Emmanuel Macron faces the biggest crisis of his presidency after protests in Paris over the weekend led to more than 400 arrests amid the worst rioting to hit the French capital since the 1960s.
A demonstration by the so-called “yellow vest” movement erupted in violence and widespread vandalism Saturday that left 130 people injured and resulted in more than 3 million euros ($3.4 million) in damage.
With calls for a repeat demonstration in Paris next Saturday — and with pockets of vandalism and unrest continuing in the French capital Monday — Macron’s government faces a deadline to defuse tensions with a movement that has demanded an end to the current government.
Macron says he will not yield to the protesters, who initially mobilized in opposition to his proposed fuel tax increases before morphing into a broader grievance movement against government’s economic management.
“Making a small gesture and then sweeping the problem under the carpet, just as has always been done for the last 30 years, does nothing to solve the deeper, structural problems,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told France Inter radio. “It will just start over six months down the line.”
Who are the yellow vests?
The gilets jaunes — named after the hi-vis vests French drivers are required to keep in their cars, which the protesters have adopted as their symbol — emerged in recent weeks in opposition to rising fuel prices and Macron’s eco-tax on gas.
The yellow vests have drawn support from across the political spectrum and from all over the country. The protest movement is channeling anger over the economic pressures faced by everyday French while Macron, a pro-business centrist and former investment banker, has cut taxes for entrepreneurs and high-earners.
Since the first protest was held on Nov. 17, the movement has organized a string of disruptive actions. More than 130,000 joined demonstrations across France at the weekend, including nearly 600 roadblocks. On Monday, the movement cut off access to 11 fuel depots belonging to the oil company Total, leaving 75 of its filling stations dry, the company said.
Three people have died in incidents linked to the protests since they began, and more than 260 people were injured across the country on Saturday alone.
Despite this, the movement appears to have strong public support, with seven in 10 people backing the protests, according to a Harris Interactive opinion poll held after Saturday’s violence.
The movement has no formal leadership structure, with about eight semi-official spokespeople having emerged — and making meaningful negotiations even more challenging.
What happened in Paris?
The demonstrations in Paris Saturday erupted into some of the most violent unrest in the city since the historic student protests of 1968, with cars torched, homes destroyed and stores looted.
Nearly 190 fires were put out and six buildings were set alight, the interior ministry said, as protesters ransacked some of the capital’s ritziest areas, including the Champs-Elysees, the Louvre, and Place Vendome.
Protesters, many wearing ski masks, threw paint bombs and paving stones at police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons. The Arc de Triomphe, a monument to war dead and key symbol of the French republic, was sprayed with graffiti reading “topple the bourgeoisie” and “we’ve chopped off heads for less than this.”
Junior interior minister Laurent Nunez told France’s RTL radio Monday that some of the protesters “clearly intended to kill,” citing hammers found on some of those arrested, and a violent attack on a police officer near the Arc de Triomphe.
The chaos of Saturday’s unrest and the sprawling nature of the movement makes it difficult to establish a clear profile of those responsible for the violence.
Government ministers claimed that violent extremists had infiltrated and exploited the yellow vest campaign as an excuse to commit violence, while Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said many of those arrested were men aged between 30 and 40, who had come from outside Paris with the intention of clashing with police.
He said the violence had also been fueled by young people from the Paris suburbs who had joined in to take advantage of the unrest and join in the looting.
But hardliners among the yellow vests were also responsible for the violence. While many of the yellow vests present Saturday denounced the scenes of violence as harmful to their cause, others told reporters they would continue until Macron stepped down.
What is the government doing?
French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has held talks with opposition leaders Monday over a response to the unrest, and is due to meet with representatives of the yellow vests on Tuesday.
Among the responses floated over the weekend was the imposition of a state of emergency, such as was introduced after nationwide riots by youths in poor suburbs in 2005, and after the Paris terror attacks in November 2015. But the government appeared to be backing away from that option Monday, with Nunez saying “for now, it's not on the table.”
So far, the signals from Macron are that he is determined not to follow the example of previous French leaders by yielding to the protesters’ demands. Macron, who was in Argentina at the G20 as Paris erupted, said Saturday that he would never accept violence, and will not deviate from his policy on the increased fuel tax, part of a push to combat climate change.
That sets the president, who was booed by members of the public as he surveyed the damage Sunday, on a collision course with the protesters. One of movement’s spokeswomen, Jacline Mouraud, told AFP that scrapping the fuel tax was a “prerequisite for any discussion” with the government.
Cover image: Yellow vest protesters clash with riot police as part of demonstration against rising fuel taxes near Arc de triomphe de l'Etoile in Paris, France on December 01, 2018. (ELYXANDRO CEGARRA/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)