Macron holds crisis meeting as French government mulls state of emergency over protests

COMPILED FROM WIRE SERVICES
ISTANBUL
Published 02.12.2018 14:26
Updated 02.12.2018 17:38
Protesters hold a French flag near a burning barricade during a protest of Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs, on December 1, 2018 in Paris. (AFP Photo)
Protesters hold a French flag near a burning barricade during a protest of Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs, on December 1, 2018 in Paris. (AFP Photo)

French President Emmanuel Macron visited the graffiti-damaged Arc de Triomphe monument and held an emergency meeting on security Sunday, a day after central Paris was hit by France's worst riot in a generation.

Macron, who was meeting with his prime minister and interior and environment ministers, has vowed that those responsible for the violence and the damages will pay for their actions. His tour of France's beloved monument came just hours after he flew back from the G-20 summit in Argentina.

TV images showed the inside of the monument ransacked with a statue of Marianne, a symbol of the French republic, smashed, and graffiti sprawled on the exterior ranging from anti-capitalist slogans to social demands.


Vandalized statue of the Marianne, a symbol in France, seen inside the Arc de Triomphe, after protesters wearing entered monument during clashes.

Macron paid tribute to the Unknown Soldier from World War I whose tomb is under the monument. He then headed to a nearby avenue where activists wearing yellow jackets had torched cars, smashed windows, looted stores and battled police on Saturday. There he met with firefighters, police officers and restaurant owners.

New figures released from the Paris police service showed that 412 people were arrested on Saturday during the worst clashes for years in the capital and 378 were still in custody.

A total of 133 had been injured, including 23 members of the security forces who battled rioters for most of the day in some of the most famous parts of the capital.

"I will never accept violence," Macron told a news conference in Buenos Aires before flying home.

"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.

In a fresh incident on Sunday morning, a motorway pay booth was set on fire by arsonists in southern France near the city of Narbonne, a judicial source told AFP.

The main north-south motorway in eastern France, the A6, was also blocked by protesters near the city of Lyon on Sunday morning, its operator said.

Meanwhile, a motorist died overnight after colliding with traffic which had built up due to a "yellow vest" anti-government protest in southern France, a local prosecutor said Sunday.

The accident happened in Arles after "a van collided into a heavy truck at full force before being hit by another vehicle," Tarascon prosecutor Patrick Desjardins told AFP, adding that the accident was "directly related" to a roadblock by protesters which caused a 10km traffic jam.

The capital was calm, however, but as groups of workers moved around cleaning up the mess from the previous day, the scale of the destruction became clear.

In famed areas around the Champs-Elysees, the Louvre palace, the Opera or Place Vendome, smashed shop windows, broken glass and the occasional burned out car were testament to the violence.

Dozens of cars were torched by the gangs of rioters, some of whom wore gas masks and ski goggles to lessen the effects of tear gas which was fired continually by police.

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

Nearly 190 fires were put out and six buildings were set alight, the interior ministry said.

At the Arc de Triomphe, a monument to France's war dead, graffiti had been daubed, saying: "The yellow vests will win."

This was a reference to the so-called "yellow vest" anti-government protests that have swept France over the last fortnight, sparked initially by a rise in taxes on diesel.

The movement has since morphed into a broad opposition front to Macron, a 40-year-old pro-business centrist elected in May 2017.

Violent anarchist and far-right groups have since infiltrated it and are thought to be behind Saturday's clashes.

Macron faces a dilemma in how to respond to the "yellow vests", not least because they are a grassroots movement with no formal leaders and a wide range of demands.

Some representatives have also insisted on public talks broadcast on TV.

"We have said that we won't change course. Because the course is good," government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told BFM television defiantly on Sunday morning.

"It's been thirty years that people change course every 18 months," he added, referring to Macron's presidential predecessors who have often caved in to pressure from French street protests.

Macron has so far refused to roll back taxes on fuel, which he says are needed to fund the country's transition to a low-emission economy.

And he remains a fervent defender of the tax cuts he has delivered for businesses and high-earners, which he believes were necessary to lower the country's chronic high unemployment.

"We're at a time when a bit of national unity around our security forces, around those who are really struggling would be a good thing for the country," Griveaux added.

An estimated 75,000 demonstrators, most of them peaceful, were counted across the country on Saturday, 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.

Interior Minister Castaner attributed the violence to "specialists in sowing conflict, specialists in destruction".

He did not rule out imposing a state of emergency -- a demand made by the police union Alliance -- declaring: "Nothing is taboo for me. I am prepared to examine everything."

Two people have died and dozens have been injured in the rallies, which opinion polls suggest still attract the support of two out of three French people.

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