France Cleans Up Champs-Elysees After Yellow Vest Rioting

'This isn't protest — this is criminal,' said one Marseille resident about the damage and violence

Outside view of a store vandalized and set on fire the day after riots erupted on the Champs Elysees Paris, France, March 17, 2019.
AP

Paris cleaned up one of the world's most glamorous avenues Sunday after rioting by an ultraviolent core in the dwindling yellow vest protest movement angry at President Emmanuel Macron.

Luxury stores, restaurants and banks on the Champs-Elysees assessed damage after they were ransacked or blackened by life-threatening fires, as tourists took pictures, shop owners repaired broken windows, and city workers scrubbed away graffiti.

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Images of the damage — including from a bank fire that engulfed a residential building and threatened a mother and child's life — has shocked France and seems to be further eroding public support for the fizzling four-month-old movement.

"This is disgusting. I used to have support for them, but they have gone too far. A mother and baby nearly died... This isn't protest — this is criminal," said Alice Giraud, a 42-year-old musician from Marseille and mother of two, who was inspecting a burnt out kiosk on the Champs-Elysees that still reeked of smoke.

Others blamed the violence on the "thugs," a hardcore group of ultraviolent yellow vest demonstrators that Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said comprised a mere 1,500 individuals that came into Paris just to smash things up.

"The yellow vest protests are dying... They are basically getting smaller as time goes on, and the thugs are angry about that so they are expressing it in violence," said Julien, 32-year old a baker from Paris, who wouldn't give his last name.

Some 10,000 people participated in Saturday's Paris protest, according to France's Interior Ministry, up from the 3,000 recorded the Saturday before. Around the country, the ministry estimated that it was up from last week — at 32,300, compared with 28,600.

However, it was far from the 250,000 yellow vest demonstrators who protested in December — and a fraction of the 145,000 people who took part in peaceful climate marches Saturday around France, according to the ministry's figures.

Public support for the movement that sought for economic justice by has been sullied by violence and extremist is dwindling, and its target Macron is resurgent in the polls.

The movement that began Nov. 17 of last year tapped into widespread discontent with high taxes and diminishing living standards in working class provinces — and anger at Macron, seen as too friendly with the rich and powerful and out of touch with French concerns.

But the yellow vest movement has lost support because of protest violence, internal divisions and concessions by Macron's government. The remaining protesters appear increasingly extreme, even as they sought to revive their movement Saturday by marking the end of a two-month-long national debate called by Macron that protesters say failed to answer their demands.

A defiant Macron promised a crackdown on troublemakers that "want to destroy the republic, at the risk of killing people."

He met security officials at the crisis center overseeing the police response, after cutting short a weekend ski trip late Saturday night. But he also tweeted that the rioting showed that his government needs to do more to address protesters' concerns.

The Interior Ministry said Macron has requested that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Castaner meet Sunday to come up with a response to the violence.

Authorities and some protesters blamed extremists who come to demonstrations with the express goal of attacking police and damaging property. They dress in black, including masks and hoods to make it harder for police to identify them, and often target symbols of capitalism or globalization.

On the Champs-Elysees, an eerie calm replaced the hours-long chaos of the day before on the street that Parisians call "the most beautiful avenue in the world."

No police were visible Sunday, and traffic rolled down cobblestones that had been the scene of battles between rioters and police struggling to contain them.

Castaner went to the Champs-Elysees to lay a flower at the plaque commemorating a police officer killed in 2017 by an Islamic extremist that was vandalized by factions of the yellow vest protest.

Passers-by lamented the damage to Xavier Jugele's memorial.

"There's no more respect." said Guillaume Catel, 40, who was out shopping. "This man gave his life to protect France and this is the thanks he gets."