All day long Emmanuel Macron skulked behind the majestic walls of his presidential palace while outside, his city – and his country – once again erupted in fury.
Not only was the Elysee Palace guarded by hundreds of riot police but also armoured cars bearing machine guns and grenade launchers. Excessive perhaps, but few who spent any time in Paris yesterday would doubt that but for this formidable ring of steel, the mob would have surely tried to storm inside.
It was a day of reckoning, a day of insurrection. And this time the revolutionary spirit was catching. There were also disturbances in Marseilles, France’s second city, and in Brussels.
Protestors wearing a yellow vest stand next to a burning barricade, during a demonstration against rising costs of living they blame on high taxes in Toulouse, southern France (pictured)
In Paris, around mid-morning, three tear-gas capsules rolled to a halt at the feet of a group of ‘yellow vest’ protesters milling outside the Flora Danica brasserie on the Champs-Elysees. The men appeared to scarcely register this attempt to disperse them. A few peeled away, not with any sense of urgency, but with determined insouciance, as if running would show weakness. Eventually, someone picked up the canister and tossed it back at police.
Another was booted away and, as it spun down the boulevard, a light breeze caught the smoke, lifting it above the trees festooned with Christmas lights. ‘Take that, Macron,’ cried one protester.
The shell of a Smart car burns on the streets of Paris, as the warped sign of store nearby is melted by the flames; despite authorities being on high alert the chaos has continued
The yellow vests were originally worn by workers upset about petrol tax increases, declining living standards and diminished rights. But their protest has since swelled into a massive, amorphous rebellion. The demands of interest groups vary but all are united in wanting both Mr Macron’s resignation and an emergency election.
It seemed to matter not to protesters that the government promised to suspend fuel tax increases for at least six months to defuse the rioting – the first U-turn by Macron since he came to power in 2017.
Then, he saved France from the populist tide. Cast as the saviour of Europe and a visionary in the JFK mould, he was the leader who some joked could walk on water.
A yellow vest holds up a sign as a jet from a water cannon sprays over his head near Avenue Marceau, Paris on Saturday
Yet, as his presidential term unfolded and he surrounded himself with a team of technocrats, he was accused of ignoring the masses. His tax policy, it was argued, made him the ‘president of the rich’. His approval ratings plummeted.
And last week, Macron was bitterly criticised for choosing to stay out of the public eye, preferring instead to hold closed-door meetings in the Elysee Palace, seen by many as his ivory tower.
Sheltering from tear gas in the doorway of a bank, one protester, Samuel, 28, said: ‘Make no mistake, Macron has become the focus of anger and I can’t see all this ending until he falls.
‘What you are seeing here today is a little revolution. Whether it gets bigger only time will tell.’
Paris is on lockdown as armed police battle to contain ‘yellow vest’ demonstrators with more than 700 arrests so far today in the fourth straight weekend of demonstrations over living costs and proposed tax rises in France
At just after dawn, the first protesters headed for the Arc de Triomphe, defaced during the previous week’s demonstration. They found it ringed with police cars and vans and officers clad in protective clothing standing sternly behind riot shields. The authorities clearly weren’t taking any chances.
Elsewhere there had already been 350 arrests and it was still only breakfast. Baseball bats, hammers and gas canisters were confiscated. Metal petanque balls were found, adding a Gallic touch to the arsenal.
By mid-morning though, the insurrection still felt benign. In the Avenue D’Iena – linking the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower – a man and his son kicked a ball around. A few cafes offered breakfast. Paris was going about its business, or at least trying to.
On the Avenue Kleber, which was heavily targeted last week, its residents’ luxury cars torched, nervousness prevailed. Some were vacating the grand old apartment buildings and heading off to stay with friends and family.
‘We thought that nothing could be as bad as last Saturday,’ said 39-year-old Fouzia Robert, an investment banker. ‘But we are told that today will be as bad, possibly more violent. I’m going to the country.’
At that moment, 21 riot police vans began thundering past. Madame Robert shook her head and drew a deep breath. Nearby a youth dressed in black standing on a street corner hurled an unidentified missile at the convoy.
It was the cue for the waiters of nearby Cafe Belloy, which had been valiantly declaring business as usual, to shut its doors. Much of Paris looked like a ghost town, with museums and stores closed on what should have been a busy pre-Christmas shopping day.
Tourists were scarce and residents were advised to stay at home if possible. Dozens of streets were closed to traffic, while the Eiffel Tower and museums such as the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and the Centre Pompidou were shut.
Smoke from grenades billows into the night sky as the Yellow Vests surround the Place de la Republique and a helicopter circles overhead
At midday on the Champs-Elysees, now filled with clouds of tear gas, thousands were squaring up to the riot police who stopped them marching on Macron’s palace. Having first boxed the protesters into the boulevard, officers later chased them into side streets.
High above, disappearing in and out of grey clouds, a police helicopter circled. As it did in previous weeks, the middle of the afternoon brought sinister elements on to the front line. The chanting suddenly gave way to violence.
By nightfall, protesters were back on the Champs-Elysees, fighting pitched battles with police among the Christmas lights. In response to tear gas, they let off flares.
‘This is what happens when you govern against your people,’ said a bearded protester. ‘It’s a lesson for Macron – but I think it’s one he may have learned too late.’
Nearly 500 miles away in Marseilles, police brought armoured vehicles on to the streets as a 2,000-strong protest turned violent. The city centre was taken over by marauding gangs of youths as they smashed bank windows, looted and set Christmas trees ablaze.
In Brussels, protesters threw paving stones, road signs, fireworks, flares and other objects at police blocking their entry to an area where government buildings and the parliament are located.