French Yellow Vest protesters set life-threatening fires, smashed up luxury stores and clashed with police on Saturday in the 18th straight weekend of demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron. Large plumes of smoke rose above the rioting on Paris' landmark Champs-Elysees avenue, and a mother and her child were just barely saved from a building blaze.
Paris police appeared to be caught off guard by the speed and severity of the unrest.
The police on Saturday used tear gas and water cannon to repel protesters who gathered at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe war memorial, which was sacked by protesters on December 1 in scenes that drew global condemnation.
"Macron, we're coming to get you at home", some of the protesters chanted, referring to the presidential palace situated near the Champs-Elysees. Firefighters had to rescue a mother and her child as the fire threatened to engulf their floor.
Protest organizers had hoped to make a splash Saturday, which marks the 4-month anniversary of the yellow vest movement, which started November 17, and the end of the "Great Debate" that the French president organized to respond to protesters' concerns about sinking living standards, stagnant wages and high unemployment.
Today's action marks the end of a two-month national debate President Macron organised to respond to the protesters' concerns. Fire trucks rushed to extinguish two burning newspaper kiosks that were set ablaze, sending black smoke high into the sky.
Several protesters smiled as they posed for a photo in front of one the kiosk's charred remains.
Protestors targeted banks as well as luxury shops and high-end boutiques.
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Il est encore difficile d'établir un bilan des victimes en raison de la confusion qui règne sur les lieux, rapporte l'agence Reuters.
Tensions flared at the top of the famed avenue where upmarket restaurant Fouquet's, which is often frequented by celebrities and politicians, was set alight and vandalised.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said thugs looking for trouble had infiltrated the demonstrations and gave the order to respond to "unacceptable attacks with the greatest firmness".
Still, the numbers paled beside the 30,000 people who took part in a separate peaceful climate march in Paris at the same time, according to Castaner. Since then, repeated rioting by the protesters and economic concessions by Macron have diminished public support for the yellow vests.
Paris police told The Associated Press that 109 people were arrested in Paris on Saturday.
Saturday's turnout is a test for the "yellow vest" movement, which began in November over fuel tax hikes and quickly ballooned into a anti-government rebellion but has struggled lately to mobilise large numbers of protesters. They are angry over high taxes and Macron policies seen as coddling the business world.
Many protesters, particularly those on the political extremes, see the national debate as a failure. "We're here to show Macron that empty words are not enough", said yellow vest demonstrator Frank Leblanc, 62, from Nantes. "Everything", said Martine Sous, a protester from the Eure region west of Paris.
"We are pacifists", Sous insisted.