French violence flares as yellow vest protests enter fourth month

PARIS — Rioters set fire to a bank and ransacked stores on Paris’ landmark shopping street in a new flare-up of violence as France’s yellow vest protests against President Emmanuel Macron and his pro-business reforms entered a fourth month.

Police fired tear gas and water cannons as the protests turned violent again after weeks of relative calm during marches and declining numbers of participants.

A Banque Tarneaud branch spewed flames before firefighters arrived and rescued two people from the building, with eleven suffering minor injuries, the fire department said.

Rioters also set fire to an upmarket handbag store and two news-stands on the Champs Elysees avenue while scattered bonfires burned on the iconic thoroughfare.

Protesters lobbed cobblestones at riot police through clouds of tear gas in front of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe monument, which was ransacked at the peak of the protests in December.

Police had arrested more than 150 protesters by late afternoon as demonstrators looted stores around the Champs Elysees and ransacked the high-end Fouquet’s restaurant.

The canvas awning was later set on fire of the swanky brasserie, known in France as the place where conservative Nicolas Sarkozy celebrated his presidential election victory in 2007.

Several hundred yards down the Champs Elysees, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told journalists the latest violence was “unacceptable” and all would be done to bring perpetrators to justice.

“We are dealing with several hundred, several thousand in some cases, highly determined people who are there to create disorder,” he said.

The interior ministry estimated 10,000 people had participated in the protest in Paris, compared with 2,800 the previous Saturday. Elsewhere in France, protesters were estimated at 4,500, compared with 4,200 last week.

Fresh Violence

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said that although the protest was relatively small, there were more than 1,500 “ultra violent” people out looking for trouble.

“They decided, perhaps as a swansong, to come attack – and I use their words – Paris,” he said, adding more than 1,400 police officers were mobilized.

“I’ve given instructions to the police this morning for great firmness so that nothing slips by.”

A separate, peaceful march against climate change through central Paris drew as many 36,000 people, the interior ministry estimated.

Yellow vest protesters have promised to draw bigger numbers to mark the fourth month since the movement erupted in mid November, over since-scrapped fuel tax hikes and the high cost of living.

Named after the high visibility vests French drivers have to keep in their cars and worn by protesters, the revolt swelled into a broader movement against Macron and his reforms.

However, the weekly demonstrations, held every Saturday in Paris and other cities, have been generally getting smaller since December, when Paris saw some of the worst vandalism and looting in decades.

After the spike in violence, Macron offered a package of concessions worth more than $11 billion aimed at boosting the incomes of the poorest workers and pensioners.

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

The 41-year-old former investment banker also launched a series of national debates which are aimed at determining what policies people want the government to focus on.

Saturday’s protests coincide with the end of the debates.

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