PARIS - Large plumes of smoke rose above Paris' landmark Champs-Elysees avenue as French yellow vest protesters set fires, smashed up luxury stores and clashed with police Saturday in a 18th straight weekend of demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron.
Police tried to contain the demonstrators with tear gas and water cannons. Fire trucks rushed to extinguish two burning newspaper kiosks that were set ablaze, sending black smoke high into the sky.
As demonstrators targeted symbols of the luxury industry, shops including brands Hugo Boss and Lacoste were smashed up and pillaged, and mannequins thrown out of the broken windows. A posh eatery called Fouquet's, which is associated with politicians and celebrities, was vandalized and set on fire. A vehicle burned outside luxury boutique Kenzo, one of many blazes on and around the Champs-Elysees.
The violence started when protesters threw smoke bombs and other objects at officers along the famed avenue — scene of repeated past rioting — and started pounding on the windows of a police van. Riot police then retreated, with protesters kicking the side of the large truck.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said there were 7,000-8,000 demonstrators in Paris on Saturday of which 1,500 were “ultraviolent ones that are there to smash things up.”
Pushing a hard line, Castaner ordered police to retaliate against these “inadmissible” acts, condemning those who “call for violence and are here to ferment chaos in Paris.”
After dwindling numbers in recent weekends, protesters are hoping their latest day of action can breathe new life into their movement against a president seen as favoring the elite.
Paris police told The Associated Press that 64 people were arrested by early afternoon. Bracing for a potential uptick in protester numbers and violence, the French capital deployed more police Saturday than in previous weekends. Police closed down several streets and fanned out around the Right Bank.
Yellow vest groups representing teachers, unemployed people and labor unions were among those that organized dozens of rallies and marches Saturday in the capital and around France.
The actions mark the end of a two-month national debate that Macron organized to respond to protesters' concerns.
Protesters dismiss the debate as empty words and a campaign ploy by Macron for European Parliament elections in May. They are angry over high taxes and Macron policies seen as coddling the business world.
“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,” lawyer and protester Francois Boulo told Europe-1 radio.
In their online appeal for Saturday's protests, organizers said they wanted the day to serve as an “ultimatum” to “the government and the powerful.”