French yellow vest protesters have started fires, smashed up luxury shops and clashed with police 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 fire in a building as protests intensified.
French police tried to contain the demonstrators with tear gas and water cannon, with limited success.
One perilous fire targeted a bank on the ground floor of a seven-storey residential building.
As fire engines rushed over, a mother and her child were rescued as the blaze threatened to engulf their floor. Eleven people in the building, including two firefighters, sustained light injuries, as other residents were evacuated.
The rioting comes at the end of a two-month national debate which Mr Macron organised to respond to protesters’ concerns about sinking living standards, stagnant wages and high unemployment.
After the weekly protests dwindled recently, protesters were hoping to breathe new life into their movement against a president who they see as favouring the elite.
The violence started on Saturday when protesters threw smoke bombs and other objects at officers along the famed avenue – the scene of previous rioting – and started pounding on the windows of a police van, prompting riot police to retreat.
Simultaneous fires were also put out from two burning newspaper kiosks, which sent black smoke high into the sky. Several protesters smiled as they posed for a photo in front of one the kiosk’s charred remains.
Demonstrators also targeted symbols of the luxury industry, as shops including brands Hugo Boss and Lacoste were smashed up, with mannequins thrown out of the broken windows.
Fouquet’s restaurant, which is associated with politicians and celebrities, was vandalised and set on fire. A vehicle burned outside the luxury boutique Kenzo, one of many blazes started on and around the Champs-Elysees.
Interior minister Christophe Castaner said up to 8,000 demonstrators were in Paris on Saturday, including 1,500 “ultraviolent ones that are there to smash things up”.
Mr Castaner ordered police to retaliate against these “inadmissible” acts, condemning those who “call for violence and are here to ferment chaos in Paris”.
Paris police said 82 people were arrested by mid-afternoon. Police closed down several streets and fanned out around the Right Bank.
Yellow vest groups representing teachers, unemployed people and labour unions were among those who organised dozens of rallies and marches on Saturday in the capital and around France.
Protesters dismissed Mr Macron’s national debate on the economy as empty words and a campaign ploy to gain support for the European Parliament elections in May. Protesters are angry over high taxes, and Mr Macron’s policies seen as coddling business.
Lawyer and protester Francois Boulo told Europe-1 radio: “Those who participated in this great debate are mostly retirees and upper middle class, meaning Macron’s electorate, even though we understood this great national debate was supposed to respond to the yellow vest crisis.”