France to consider state of emergency as riots engulf central Paris

France will consider imposing a state of emergency to prevent a recurrence of some of the worst civil unrest in more than a decade and urged peaceful protesters to come to the negotiating table, a government spokesman said on Sunday. Rioters ran amok across central Paris on Saturday, torching cars and buildings, looting shops, smashing windows and clashing with police in the worst unrest in more than a decade, posing a dire challenge to Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.

The authorities were caught off guard by the escalation in violence after two weeks of nationwide protests against fuel taxes and living costs, known as the “yellow vest” movement after fluorescent jackets kept in all vehicles in France. In Paris, police said they had arrested almost 300 people while 110 were injured, including 20 members of the security forces. Police fired stun grenades, tear gas and water cannon at protesters at the top of the Champs-Elysees boulevard, at the Tuilleries Garden near the Louvre museum and other sites.

In some areas there was virtually no police presence at all, as groups of masked men roamed in the shadows of the capital’s fabled landmarks and through its fanciest shopping districts, smashing the windows of designer boutiques.

Macron, in Argentina for a G20 summit, said he would convene ministers to discuss the crisis upon his return on Sunday. Addressing a news conference in Buenos Aires, he said no cause justified the looting of stores, attacks on the security forces or torching of property. Macron on Tuesday said he understood the anger of voters outside France’s big cities over the squeeze fuel prices have put on households. But he insisted he would not be bounced into changing policy by “thugs”. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe canceled a trip to Poland.

“We are in a state of insurrection, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jeanne d’Hauteserre, the mayor of Paris’ 8th district, near the Arc de Triomphe.

The popular rebellion erupted out of nowhere on 17 November and has spread quickly via social media, with protesters blocking roads across France and impeding access to shopping malls, factories and some fuel depots. On Saturday, some targeted the Arc de Triomphe, chanting “Macron Resign” and scrawling on the facade of the towering 19th-century arch: “The yellow vests will triumph.”

Protesters smashed the windows of a newly opened flagship Apple Store (AAPL.O) and luxury boutiques of Chanel and Dior, where they daubed the slogan “Merry Mayhem” on a wooden board. Close to the Place Vendome, Christmas trees decorating the streets were upended, piled in the middle of an avenue and set ablaze, prompting chanting from scores of protesters.

Authorities said violent far-right and far-left groups had infiltrated the yellow vests movement. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said most of those arrested were regular protesters who had been egged on by the fringe groups.

The protests began as a backlash against Macron’s fuel tax hikes, but have tapped into a vein of deep dissatisfaction felt toward the 40-year-old’s economic reforms, which many voters feel favor the wealthy and big business. Unrest erupted in several towns and cities across France, from Charleville Mezieres in the northeast to Marseille in the south. In the Riviera city of Nice trucks blocked access to the airport, and in the central town of Puy-en-Velay the police headquarters was set on fire.

The protests are taking a toll on the economy. Parts of central Paris that should have been packed with tourists and Christmas shoppers resembled battle zones, as smoke and tear gas hung in the air and debris littered the ground. Hotels and department stores in the capital stand to lose millions, and shelves have run empty in some supermarkets.

Despite the unrest that has accompanied the protests, the “yellow vests” have widespread public support, even in cities. Many on the outskirts of smaller provincial towns and villages have expressed anger, underlining the gap between metropolitan elites and working class voters that has boosted anti-establishment politics across the Western world.

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