PARIS (AP) — The most violent urban riots in a decade engulfed the French capital on Saturday, as “yellow jacket” protesters torched cars, smashed windows, looted stores and tagged the Arc de Triomphe in Paris with multi-colored graffiti.
Protesters angry about rising taxes and the high cost of living clashed with riot police, who closed off some of the city’s most popular tourist areas and fired tear gas and water cannons in running street battles with activists dressed in the fluorescent yellow vests of a new protest movement.
It was the third straight weekend of clashes in Paris and the worst urban violence since at least 2005. Hours later, cars still smoldered and law enforcement and protesters were still facing off elsewhere in the capital.
The scene contrasted sharply with protests elsewhere in France, where demonstrations and road blockades Saturday were largely peaceful.
Paris police said at least 92 people, including 20 police officers, were injured in the violent protests in the French capital and 224 others were arrested. Thousands of police were deployed to try to contain the mayhem.
Deputy Interior minister Laurent Nunez said police were facing “violent extremists” in Paris who had hijacked the protest.
“We are facing troublemakers who are targeting the symbols of the state,” he told BFM television.
The clashes started early Saturday near the Arc de Triomphe monument and continued in the afternoon down several streets in the French capital’s most popular tourist area. Pockets of demonstrators built makeshift barricades in the middle of Paris streets, lit fires, sprayed graffiti on the Arc de Triomphe and fire to cars and trash cans. Some stores were looted.
French television showed police leading a shaken woman away from the protesters, and loud bangs rang out near the famed Champs Elysees Avenue where the violence was centered.
Central Paris was locked down by Saturday afternoon, with all roads leading away from the arc closed off as more police moved in. Over 20 Paris metro stations were closed on Saturday evening for security reasons, the Paris public transport company RATP said.
Some demonstrators removed the barriers protecting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I under the Arc de Triomphe monument to pose near its eternal flame and sing the national anthem. They were then dispersed by police.
Graffiti sprayed onto the Arc de Triomphe wrote: “yellow jackets will triumph.”
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tweeted her “indignation” and “deep sadness” at the confrontations, saying that violence is “not acceptable.”
In addition to rising taxes, demonstrators are furious about President Emmanuel Macron’s leadership, saying his government does not care about ordinary people. The grassroots protests began with motorists upset over a fuel tax hike, but now involve a broad range of demands related to France’s high cost of living.
Some of the protests appear to have been taken over by more radical far-right or far-left groups.
French authorities said they counted 75,000 protesters Saturday across the country, including 5,500 in Paris, numbers that were less than last week’s protest but produced much more violence.
Earlier Saturday, several hundreds of peaceful protesters in Paris passed through police checkpoints to reach the Champs-Elysees. They marched on the famed avenue behind a big banner writing “Macron, stop taking us for stupid people.”
Access to the Champs-Elysees was closed to cars and strictly monitored by police with identity checks and bag inspections.
“It’s difficult to reach the end of the month. People work and pay a lot of taxes and we are fed up,” said Rabah Mendez, a protester who came from a southern suburb to march peacefully in Paris.
“Our purchasing power is severely diminishing every day. And then: taxes, taxes and taxes,” said Paris resident Hedwige Lebrun. “The state is asking us to tighten our belts, but they at the contrary live totally above all standards with our money.”
Since the yellow jacket movement kicked off on Nov. 17, two people have been killed and hundreds injured in accidents stemming from the protests.
Chris Den Hond and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.