Over 12,500 protesters stormed the streets of France while 10,000 others demonstrated in Paris against the government over rising fuel taxes.
Protesters, chanting the slogans of 'Macron resign' clashed with police who resorted to tear gas to contain them.
Security was tightened around the president's Elysse Palace-a key destination for the protesters. Police deployed stationed trucks and reinforced metal barriers throughout the neighborhood to avoid untoward incidents.
Stores along the elegant Champs-Elysees Avenue and the posh Avenue Montaigne boarded up their windows as if bracing for a hurricane but the storm struck anyway on Saturday, this time at the height of the holiday shopping season. Protesters ripped off the plywood protecting the windows and threw flares and other projectiles. French riot police repeatedly repelled them with tear gas and water cannon.
Police and protesters also clashed in other French cities, notably Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux, and in neighbouring Belgium. Some protesters took aim at the French border with Italy, creating a huge traffic backup near the town of Ventimiglia.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said that 135 people had been injured and 974 taken into custody amid protests around the nation. Paris police headquarters counted 71 injuries in the capital, seven of them police officers.
All of the city’s top tourist attractions — including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre museum — shut down for the day, fearing the kind of damage that hit the Arc de Triomphe a week ago. Christmas markets and soccer matches were cancelled. Subway stations in the city center closed and the U.S. embassy warned citizens to avoid all protest areas.
French authorities deployed 8,000 security officers in the capital alone, among the 89,000 who fanned out around the country.
Amid the melee, President Emmanuel Macron remained invisible and silent, as he has for the four weeks of a movement that started as a protest against a gas tax hike and metamorphosed into a rebellion against high taxes and eroding living standards.
The mayor of the city of Saint-Etienne, a town in southeast France hit by violence on Saturday, castigated Macron for failing to speak out, saying it “feeds the resentment.”
“This silence becomes contempt for the nation,” the mayor, Gael Perdriau, of the opposition conservative party, said on BFMTV. “He has a direct responsibility in what is happening. He can’t remain closed up in the Elysee.”
France’s yellow vest protesters have political stances ranging from the far right to the far left but the leaderless group is united in its sense that Macron and his government are out of touch.
“We are here to tell (Macron) our discontent. Me, I’m not here to break things because I have four children,” said protester Myriam Diaz. “But I still want to be here to say ‘Stop, that’s enough.’”
Some protesters sang the French national anthem — “The Marseillaise” — as they confronted phalanxes of police in heavy riot gear.
Macron on Wednesday agreed to abandon the fuel tax hike, which aimed to wean France off fossil fuels and uphold the Paris climate agreement. Many economists and scientists say higher fuel taxes are essential to save the planet from worsening climate change, but that stance hasn’t defused the anger among France’s working class.
Late Saturday, after announcing that the violence in Paris had been “contained,” Castaner, the interior minister, took a victory stroll down the Champs-Elysees.
Tear gas had dissipated and a standoff was over. It had pitted a line of security forces, backed by two armored vehicles, against protesters, some lobbing objects and cherry bombs to taunt police.
Protesters also blocked roads, traffic roundabouts and highway tollbooths elsewhere in France and offshoot movements emerged in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Belgian police fired tear gas and water cannon Saturday at yellow-vested protesters calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Charles Michel. The protesters in Brussels threw paving stones, road signs, fireworks, flares and other objects at police and about 100 were detained.
Across the ocean, U.S. President Donald Trump seized the moment to once again criticize the 2015 Paris climate accord that he is abandoning.
“People do not want to pay large sums of money ... in order to maybe protect the environment,” he tweeted.
(With AP inputs)