PARIS—It’s a very chaotic scene at the Place de l’Etoile, the tourist-favorite junction in the heart of Paris that the Arc de Triomphe has been overlooking for close to two centuries.
Lines of police officers face hundreds of protesters wearing yellow vests. A female police officer shouts with a megaphone, “Last warning, we’re going to charge.” Her voice is subdued by the crowd, which soon breaks out in an improvised rendition of “La Marseillaise”—a revolutionary battle song from the 18th century that is the French national anthem.
By the time they finish the last line, “Aux armes, citoyens (To arms, citizens!),” it’s the crowd that charges the police, breaking through their first line. As the police retreat, the protesters run toward the second line, roaring to declare victory.
What began as a protest in Paris against tax hikes in mid-November has become a grassroots movement against President Emmanuel Macron’s policies that have increased taxes and, as some claim, put fiscal pressure on the middle class.
The dissenters are protesting a rise in fuel costs, which they blame on Macron’s policies to tackle climate change, and some are calling on the president to resign.
The protests, dubbed the “yellow vest movement,” have now spread to neighboring countries as well. As the protests have turned violent, police have been called in to contain the unrest.
Macron, who was in Argentina for the G-20 summit, has denounced the violence, and rushed back to Paris on Dec. 2 to lead a crisis meeting with members of his cabinet and security officials to address the riots.
Confrontations between the protesters and law enforcement have almost become a weekly routine in Paris, with the protesters charging, breaking the police lines, and the police firing tear-gas grenades to disperse the crowds. Protesters use saline solution to neutralize the effects of the gas, while the police reload tear gas, and the confrontation is repeated.
The most violent day of protests was Dec. 1, as the protesters broke into the Arc de Triomphe, destroying statues and furniture, and causing more than $1 million in damage. A hundred vehicles were burned, and firefighters subdued more than 240 fires.
It isn’t clear which elements among the protesters are behind the violence. Many of the more organized groups among the protesters have denounced the violence.
Almost 700 people have been arrested in connection with the riots, with almost 400 charged with crimes such as illegal possession of a weapon and violence against law enforcement officials. Paris Deputy Mayor Colombe Brossels said police found a building where some extremist groups stored items to use as weapons, including hammers and other tools to break cobblestones to throw rocks at the police.
According to David Michaux, a spokesperson for the police union UNSA, police have fired more than 10,000 tear-gas grenades within days. “This was really crazy, a disaster,” Michaux told Radio France Info. “We ran out of ammo for a while, and we faced potential failure.”
‘Bank Account in Red’
The frontline of the protests is on the Champs Elysées, where the protests first broke out. Complaints about the high cost of living are common, with high taxation mostly to blame.
“I’ve been in the Iraq War, sir,” a man, who looked in his 50s or 60s, told a police officer. “I can’t live with my pension, what can I do?”
Another passerby, an elderly woman, said: “My husband has worked all his life. I am retired. My bank account is always in the red.”
According to a recent BVA survey, 72 percent of the French support the Yellow vest movements.
There are no main leaders or firm structure to the protests. Several groups, such as paramedic and student groups, have joined in, expanding the size of the movement. Many of the activists claiming leadership have had their legitimacy challenged by other leaders.
A delegation of eight leaders of the movement met with Minister of Ecology François de Rugy on Nov. 28. The leaders didn’t find the meeting addressing their concerns, and called out for more protests as a result.
Christophe Chalençon, a representative from Nouveau Collectif des Gilets Jaunes, one of the groups that have formed the protests, says the group wants the government to resign. Jacline Mouraud, a popular leader of another group, says the first step in negotiations is for the government to scrap the gas tax hikes.
“The government has declared war on vehicle owners,” Mouraud said in a YouTube video that has gone viral. “As soon as we take our cars to drive, we are seen as targets, should it be with gas taxes or new fees for high speed, as long as we are just a little above the speed limits. What are you doing with all that money?”
But having their demands answered by the government isn’t the only thing Mouraud and many others are concerned about; they say they have received threats from anarchist groups who want no settlement and want the riots to continue. Mouraud said Dec. 3 that she wouldn’t join protests without police protection, as anarchist members have threatened her life and have published her family members’ names on social media.
A delegation of protesters is scheduled to meet with government officials on Dec. 4.