Violent scenes erupted against in the French capital on Saturday, with cars torched, police attacked with hammers and even a police gun stolen during the riots. Protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s rise in fuel duty, which began in mid-November, has since become a movement against the Government’s economic reforms, which many feel favour the urban elite. Mr Macron has not ruled out imposing a state of emergency to quell the protests.
Benjamin Cauchy, a spokesperson for the “yellow vest” protest movement warned told France Info radio yesterday: “We are one step away from an insurgency. The government must respond quickly to the crisis. What we need is a strong political electric shock.”
It is only through dialogue and compromise that we can end the unrest, Mr Cauchy continued, adding that it was “never too late to negotiate”.
He said: “The government’s deafness to protesters’ demands has sparked anger and violence.”
He added a moratorium on the fuel tax would be “seen as a first step” and prove that the government “can hear the anger and doesn’t want the country to degenerate into chaos”.
The popular rebellion – dubbed the “yellow vests” after the high-visibility safety jackets kept in all vehicles in France – first erupted on November 17, with protesters blocking roads across France and impeding access to shopping centres, factories and some fuel depots.
Despite rioters torching vehicles and being hit with water cannon last weekend, authorities appeared to be caught off guard by the escalation in violence on Saturday.
Rioters ran amok across central Paris, torching cars and buildings, looting shops, smashing windows and hurling hammers at police in the worst unrest in more than a decade, posing a dire challenge to Mr Macron’s presidency.
Paris police said they had arrested 412 protesters, stressing that 378 remained in custody on Sunday evening and could face immediate trial on Monday or Tuesday.
A total of 263 people were injured nationwide, with 133 injured in the capital, including 23 members of the security forces.
Nearly 190 fires were put out and six buildings were set alight in Paris, the interior ministry said.
Radical far-right and far-left activists were involved in the riots as well as a great number of “yellow vests,” Paris police chief Michel Delpuech said on Sunday.
Jeanne d’Hauteserre, the mayor of Paris’ 8th district, near the Arc de Triomphe said: “We are in a state of insurrection, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Philippe Martinez, head of the Communist-linked CGT union, warned the clashes between so-called “casseurs” – or breakers – and police were “discrediting” the “yellow vests” in public opinion and “scaring off” peaceful protesters.
He told AFP: “People are angry, but they won’t take to the streets if they know they run the risk of getting gassed or beaten up.”
But the violence has not eroded support for the movement, according to an opinion poll published on Monday.
Of those questioned, 72 percent of those questioned said they supported the anti-fuel tax protests, although 85 percent denounced the use of violence by Paris “casseurs”, the poll by Harris Interactive for RTL radio and M6 television showed.
Nearly 90 per cent said that the Macron government had “failed to rise to the level of events”.
Mr Macron faces a dilemma in how to respond to the grassroots movement. He has so far refused to roll back taxes on fossil fuels, which he says are needed to fund the country’s “ecological transition” and fight climate change.
But his unbending position has exposed him to charges of being out of touch with ordinary citizens.
Benjamin Griveaux, Mr Macron’s chief spokesman, told BFM television on Sunday morning: “We have said that we won’t change course. Because the course is good.”
The French presidency said in a statement later on Sunday that Mr Macron had asked his interior minister to prepare security forces for future protests and his prime minister to hold talks with political party leaders and representatives of the protesters.
The Harris Interactive poll of 1,016 people was carried out online on December 2.