Police fired stun grenades, tear gas and water cannon at protesters at the top of the Champs-Elysees boulevard and multiple sites across the city including Opera and Place de la Bastille. More than a dozen metro stations were closed.
The popular rebellion erupted out of nowhere on Nov. 17 and has been coordinated via social media, with protesters blocking roads across France and impeding access to shopping malls, factories and some fuel depots. Some are concerned that violent far-right and far-left groups may have infiltrated the movement.
On Saturday, some targeted the Arc de Triomphe and other monuments.
“I am shocked by the attacks on the symbols of France,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told reporters. “We are attached to dialogue, but also respect for the law.”
Other protesters smashed the windows of shops including branches of Chanel, Dior and Apple.
The skirmishes in Paris broke out early on Saturday, amid concern that violent far-right and far-left groups were infiltrating the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) movement. Rioters and peaceful protesters mixed together after police cordoned off the Champs-Elysees, forcing them into adjacent streets.
Demonstrators put up barricades in the surrounding areas, smashed some car windows and set alight dozens of vehicles, including a police car. A nearby restaurant was also set ablaze.
Several hundred yellow vests, who have no leader, sat down under the Arc de Triomphe singing La Marseillaise, the national anthem, and chanting “Macron Resign!”
On the facade of the towering 19th-century arch, protesters scrawled in big black letters: “The yellow vests will triumph.”
Some protesters were later seen on top of the arch.
Clashes also broke out in other cities and towns including Nantes in the west, Toulouse and Tarbes in the southwest, Puy-en-Velay in the center of the country, Charleville Mezieres in the northeast and Avignon in the southeast.
Heavy goods vehicles blocked the road to Nice airport, a Reuters witness said.
MACRON STANDS FIRM
Along the Champs-Elysees, which was cordoned off, peaceful protesters held up a slogan reading, “Macron, stop treating us like idiots!”
The president, who is at the G20 leaders summit in Argentina, said on Tuesday he understood the anger of voters outside France’s big cities over the squeeze fuel prices have put on households but insisted he would not be bounced into changing policy by “thugs”.
The protests have caught Macron off-guard just as he was trying to counter a fall in his popularity rating to 30 percent. His unyielding response has exposed him to charges of being out of touch with ordinary people.
Some protesters themselves expressed concern over the violence.
“What message do the yellow vests want to pass today? That we set France on fire, or find solutions? I find this (violence) absurd,” Jacline Mouraud, a prominent activist within the yellow vests movement, told BFM television.
But assistant teacher Sandrine Lemoussu, 45, who came from Burgundy to protest, told Reuters that people were fed up.
“The people are in revolt,” she said. “The anger is rising more and more, and the president despises the French. We aren’t here to smash things, but the people have had enough.”
Many on the outskirts of smaller provincial towns and villages have expressed anger, underlining the gap between metropolitan elites and working class voters that has boosted anti-establishment politics across the Western world.
“Mr Macron wrote a book called Revolution. He was prophetic because it is what he has managed to launch, but not the revolution he sought,” Far-left La France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Melenchon told reporters ahead of a protest in Marseille.
The yellow vests, who enjoy widespread public support, get their name from the high-visibility jackets all motorists in France must carry in their vehicles.
Reporting by Luke Baker, Sybille de la Hamaide, John Irish, Celia Mebroukine, Antoine Boddaert, Lucien Libert, Stephane Mahe, Caroline Paillez in Paris, Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marseille and Johanna Decorse in Toulouse; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Hugh Lawson