French stingers: Yellow jacket protests in Paris threaten Macron

MacronProtests001Paris--Vandals wrote graffiti on stores and monuments. Students lit fires in trash cans and torched cars. Demonstrators blocked major highways, gas stations and toll booths. Police shot tear gas and water cannons into crowds of angry rioters.

France's most iconic boulevard, the Champs-Élysées, was a haze of smoke and gas and screams.

"It's the hour of revolt," demonstrators chanted.

For weeks, tens of thousands of protestors called Gilets Jaunes – or Yellow Jackets after the gear drivers are required to keep in their cars by law – have been hitting the streets of Paris and other cities in France on the weekends, and now Belgium.

The Interior Ministry said almost 140,000 people participated in the protests on Saturday, down from a maximum number of more than 280,000 on Nov. 17. Three have died in incidents connected to the violence. Hundred have been injured in clashes with the police. More than 300 people are in custody on charges related to the riots. And the damage in Paris amounts to more than four million euros, Paris officials said, as they continued to clean-up the district.

Protests in various parts of France continued Monday, even as French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe held emergency talks with officials. He was scheduled to meet with protest leaders on Tuesday but representatives of the protest movement told Le Figaro newspaper they wouldn't go unless their demand to freeze new taxes are met.

President Emmanuel Macron and Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, meanwhile, were determining whether or not to impose a state of emergency that would allow security forces more leeway in cracking down on rioters.

"Nothing is off-limits,” Castaner told reporters on Monday. "I am considering everything."

Paris hasn’t seen such violence since 1968, a time when social discontent among youth and a backlash from authorities reached a climax. While some in the local media are dismissing the protestors as thugs, hooligans and rightwing extremists, Macron has been caught off balance and now it's anyone's guess where the movement is going, say analysts.

"France is dancing on a volcano – we will know in a few days, after Saturday's protests and the first negotiations with the Yellow Jackets if it can avoid the explosion," said Nicolas Beytout, a political commentator and newspaper editor, writing in L'Opinion, a French daily newspaper. "For now, there is something to be worried about."

The rioters first blocked roads in mid-November anger over Macron’s proposal to hike gasoline taxes as part of a program to reduce carbon emissions.

But the demonstrations have morphed into a general expression of discontent over living conditions in France and also Macron’s pro-business policies, which have made it easier for employers to hire and fire workers and cut taxes on corporations but have yet to restrain rising living costs or spark significant job growth for ordinary people as he promised before he assumed the presidency last year. Specifically, many of the protestors want higher salaries and pensions, jobs, better services and tax cuts.

"We are hungry…we don't have jobs...we want to live…stop the taxes…the people are tired of it," read one sign at the demonstration on Saturday, as people chanted "Macron, resign!"

The movement has no official leadership and is organized via social media. On the streets, it's comprised of young and old, urbanites and folks from the countryside. More notably, it is seemingly non-partisan.

"I'm here because we need more social justice," said Daniel, 62, of Paris. "It's not good, what's happening in this country…(people) are just getting poorer and poorer. But Macron, he represents the rich."

"I voted for Macron," he added, referring to elections last spring, which saw Macron's anti-establishment party, En Marche (Onward), win decisively. "I didn't want to but I was worried about the far right winning."

Meanwhile, Loic, 47, from a Paris suburb, said he usually votes conservative but when the Republicans lost in the first round of the elections, he supported the National Front. "I don't like the far right so much," he said. "But no one else was offering anything different. Things have to change here."

Support for the protestors is strong considering the disruption to the economy – the demonstrations are hitting some of the top tourist centers, shops and eateries in Paris – and also to everyday life, particularly for motorists and commuters. Polls show that three-quarters of the French approve of the movement even as the president's ratings have fallen to below one-third.

Still, at a bus stop across town from the protests in the Marais district, a sign indicated that the buses weren't running Saturday because of the protests. Would-be commuters grumbled over having their plans thwarted and their lives interrupted.

Meanwhile, analysts pointed out that the losers of the 2017 election, the far left and the far right, were trying to capitalize on the anger at the government.

Far left leader, Jean-Luc Melenchon, and far right National Front chief Marine Le Pen, both called for the National Assembly to be dissolved, which would mean new elections. That would threaten En Marche's hold on power.

But Najet, a business owner in Paris, said she doesn't want that: It is too early to judge Macron, she said.

"He's only been here a short time, we need to give him a chance," she said. "I understand why people are angry, but he didn't create this mess."

Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron meeting citizens in the Le Puy-en-Velay prefecture in southern France. In response to the violent protests in the small town, Macron tweeted: "To the officers of the Préfecture du Puy-en-Velay: you experienced something terrible on Saturday. There is no justification for this violence."
Credit: Courtesy of French President Emmanuel Macron's official Twitter page (12/04/18)

Story/photo publish date: 12/03/18

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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