Riot police and protesters fought running battles in the centre of Paris on Saturday as anti-government gilets jaunes demonstrators led street marches over what they called a crisis of high taxes and inequality.
Less than a week after the fire that destroyed the roof and spire of Notre Dame Cathedral, firefighters rushed to put out multiple small fires around the Place de la République, as motorbikes, bins, bicycles and cars were set alight on roads and pavements. Groups of masked men threw projectiles and police fired teargas. Some rioters in masks smashed the window of a sports shop and ran in to loot it.
The interior minister, Christophe Castaner, had warned that Paris could become “the capital of rioting” , suggesting extremists planned to attend the street marches. Politicians from Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche party said “black block” masked anarchist protesters were present.
The street demonstrations had begun peacefully in Paris on Saturday morning – the latest in five months of yellow-vest demonstrations which began as a fuel-tax revolt in November and have morphed into a protest movement over the government’s tax and social policies.
Marching from outside the economy ministry, protesters carried French flags with slogans against Emmanuel Macron written on their yellow vests, such as: “Macron, you take from the poor to give to the rich”.
Some carried banners condemning the “hypocrisy” of wealthy billionaires pledging a total of more than €1bn to rebuild Notre Dame, saying business leaders had done nothing to address low salaries and the plight of people who could not make ends meet. “Humans first, 1bn for the gilets jaunes,” read one banner.
“Millions for Notre Dame, what about for us, the poor?” read a sign worn by a demonstrator. “Everything for Notre Dame, nothing for Les Misérables,” read another sign.
Many protesters said they were frustrated that the international effort to help Notre Dame had eclipsed their movement against wealth inequality.
In the early afternoon police clashed with protesters near the Place de la République. The area was saturated with teargas and men, many with their faces wrapped in bandanas, began pulling motorbikes into roads and setting fire to them, the air thick with smoke. Some bins and bicycles were also torched.
Five days after 500 Paris firefighters had battled for nine hours to contain the Notre Dame blaze, firefighters worked to put out multiple small street fires as others were started.
By mid-afternoon, the Paris police issued an appeal on social media for peaceful yellow-vest demonstrators to leave the Place de la République in order to clearly distance themselves from masked rioters. Police fired teargas and stun grenades and a water cannon was used.
One banner on a statue in the Place de la République said “Vive Assange” expressing support for Julian Assange after his arrest by British police earlier this month.
By 5pm, as hundreds remained in the area, the square was largely calm, with occasional clashes between police and demonstrators on side streets. Police began moves to clear the remaining crowds.
Meanwhile a second, authorised, peaceful yellow-vest protest marched from the northern edge of Paris down to the centre.
Photograph: Christophe Petit-Tesson/AP
The Paris police headquarters said authorities had detained 189 people by early afternoon and had carried out spot checks on more than 17,000 people who had tried to enter the capital for the protests.
The interior ministry said the numbers of demonstrators was up on last week, estimating that more than more than 27,900 people had marched across France, with 9,000 in Paris.
When Notre Dame caught fire, Macron cancelled a speech in which he was to make policy announcements aimed at calming the yellow-vest movement. He will instead give a long press conference on Thursday – the first since he was elected two years ago.
“We’re waiting for strong measures from the government that we still haven’t seen, and there’s an urgency to act on democracy, tax, society and the environment,” said one protester.