Clouds of tear gas and shopfronts smashed - and Emmanuel Macron would not have enjoyed the protesters' message

·3-min read

It was a blend of demonstration and riot and it created a sensory overload. Paris today reverberated to noise, smells, voices and evocative sights.

The red and black flares that billowed through the heart of the city; the police charging at groups of people, pushing them back; the wispy clouds of tear gas that rolled down boulevards; shopfronts smashed for no reason; the cacophonous booms of thunderclap fireworks thrown into wheelie bins just before they explode.

There was violence on both sides - there are few angels on sight on days like this - but the French police have learnt a lesson.

At the end of March, they were roundly condemned for their brutality in controlling a demonstration, where they seemed to attack people indiscriminately.

Shortly before the first tear gas canister was fired here, French policing was criticised at the United Nations for its "excessive use of force". Part of that complaint did come from Russia, but there was also criticism from European friends like Sweden and Norway.

Here, confronted by rocks being thrown at them and properties being smashed, the police were unapologetically robust.

Read more: More than 60 injured in clashes during France protests

There is little that is subtle about tear gas, water cannon or being whacked by a baton, but it was no surprise. They had promised to be "harsh" with anyone causing violence.

But when it came to the rest of the protesters, there seemed greater restraint. The police had said they wanted to protect the integrity of the demonstration, after all.

And so amid the melees, there was a message. And it was not one that Emmanuel Macron would have enjoyed.

The French president was the villain of this piece of theatre, derided on posters, banners and in mocking songs.

His pension changes the focal point of much of this fury, but also his decision to push the reforms through without parliamentary approval.

"He is not a legitimate president anymore," one young protester told me.

Another, a woman dressed as a Roman emperor to mock Macron's apparent love of power, said simply that she was "furious" and that "it is time for him to go".

He won't go, of course. But however hard he tries to distract attention, and then the focus to other things, France continues to obsess about his pension reforms.

And so it was here. In truth, violence that broke out throughout this demonstration was as much the result of the familiar "black bloc" of organised agitators as it was to do with pension reform. But it seemed to synthesise what so many were thinking - that normal people were being taken for granted, or, worse, ignored.

Macron has always had to fight the allegation that he is aloof from the people he leads - more interested in sweeping change and political grandstanding than in the day-to-day life of his nation. He won the last election, say his critics, simply because people disliked Marine Le Pen even more than they disliked him.

Once he was the upstart outsider who reinvented French politics. Now he is seen by many as the establishment incarnate.

"He is the president for just one person, and that's himself," one person told me amid the hullabaloo of the Paris protest.

For Macron, a few miles away in the Elysee Palace, that is not a reputation to welcome.