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Violent clashes engulf Paris

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Protesters hold a French flag near a burning barricade during a protest of Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) on Saturday in Paris. ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP

Violent clashes engulf Paris

Anti-government protesters torched dozens of cars and set fire to storefronts during daylong clashes with riot police across central Paris on Saturday, as thousands took part in fresh “yellow vest” protests against high fuel taxes.

Officers responded with tear gas after being targeted by protesters hurling rocks and other projectiles on the third weekend of demonstrations which have morphed into a broader rebuke of President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron told a news conference at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, saying: “I will never accept violence.”

Smoke engulfed several shopping districts as the violence spread from the Arc de Triomphe, where crowds had gathered earlier hoping to march down the Champs-Elysees.

While several dozens were allowed into the avenue after an ID check and search, many others remained behind and fought police manning barricades and water cannon.

Protesters then led police on cat-and-mouse chases through other parts of the capital, setting cars and construction equipment alight and smashing windows.

An assault rifle was stolen from a police vehicle, a source said, though it was unclear if it was loaded.

One person was in a critical condition after protesters pulled down one of the huge iron gates of the Tuileries garden facing the famed Louvre museum, crushing several people.

“Those responsible for this violence don’t want change or improvement, they want chaos,” President Emmanuel Macron said from Buenos Aires where he was attending a G20 summit.

“No cause justifies that authorities are attacked, that businesses are plundered, that passers-by or journalists are threatened or that the Arc du Triomphe is defiled,” he said.

Authorities said at least 270 people were arrested in Paris and 110 injured, including 17 of the 5,000 police officers mobilised for the protests. Nearly 190 fires were put out and six buildings were set alight, the interior ministry said.

An estimated 75,000 demonstrators, most of them peaceful, were counted across the country in the afternoon, the interior ministry said.

The number was well below the first day of protests on November 17, which attracted around 282,000 people, and also down from the 106,000 who turned out last Saturday.

‘Idiots who come to fight’

Acrid plumes of smoke and tear gas, however, were testament to the escalation in violence in Paris, to the consternation of many of the “yellow vests”, so-called for the high-visibility jackets they wear.

Along the opulent Avenue Foch, protesters ripped out benches to form a blockade, one person waving a skull and bones pirate flag.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, speaking on French television, attributed the violence to “specialists in sowing conflict, specialists in destruction” but said the situation was largely under control.

“We’re a peaceful movement, but we’re disorganised – it’s a mess because we don’t have a leader,” said Dan Lodi, a 68-year-old pensioner on the Champs-Elysees.

“You always have some idiots who come to fight, but they don’t represent us at all.”

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s office said he would cancel his trip to Poland on Sunday for the COP24 climate summit to meet with Macron after the violence.

Stores and restaurants along the Champs-Elysees as well as surrounding streets had boarded up windows, anticipating a repeat of the clashes last Saturday which Macron compared to “war scenes”.

Chantal, a 61-year-old pensioner, said she was avoiding the “hooligans” but was determined to send Macron a message on the rising costs of living.

“He has to come down off his pedestal,” she said under rain in the Champs-Elysees. “Every month I have to dip into my savings.”

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