Paris cleans up riot debris as support fades for protesters
PARIS (AP) — Business owners, city employees and construction workers dug in Sunday to clean up one of the world's most glamorous avenues, after riots by ultraviolent yellow vest protesters trashed the Champs-Elysees in Paris to express anger at French President Emmanuel Macron's economic policies.
Luxury stores, restaurants and banks on the famed avenue assessed the damage after they were ransacked, looted or blackened by life-threatening fires set by some protesters Saturday. Tourists took pictures, shop owners repaired broken windows and city workers scrubbed away graffiti.
French political and security officials, meanwhile, met to come up with better plans to counter the violence. Images of the destruction — including from a bank fire that engulfed a residential building in Paris and threatened the lives of a mother and child — have shocked France and seem to be further eroding public support for the fizzling four-month-old movement.
"I used to have support for them, but they have gone too far. A mother and baby nearly died... This isn't protest — this is criminal," said Alice Giraud, a 42-year-old musician from Marseille and mother of two, who was inspecting a burnt-out kiosk on the Champs-Elysees that still reeked of smoke.
Others walking down the famed avenue Sunday condemned the resurgent violence and put the blame squarely on the "thugs," a hardcore group of ultraviolent yellow vest demonstrators. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said about 1,500 of those who traveled to protest Saturday in Paris came with the sole aim of smashing things up.
"The yellow vest protests are dying... They are basically getting smaller as time goes on, and the thugs are angry about that, so they are expressing it in violence," said Julien, 32-year-old baker from Paris, who wouldn't give his last name.
Protest organizers had hoped to make a splash Saturday, which marked the end of the "Great National Debate" that Macron had organized to respond to protesters' concerns about sinking living standards, stagnant wages and high unemployment. Yellow vest protesters think Macron's government has favored business interests and France's elite over the concerns of families struggling to pay their bills.
Some 10,000 people participated in Saturday's Paris protest, according to France's Interior Ministry, up from the 3,000 the Saturday before. In Paris, 192 people were arrested amid the violence. Around the country, the ministry estimated that 32,300 people protested, compared with 28,600 last week.
But it was far from the 250,000 yellow vest demonstrators who successfully demanded in December that Macron's government rescind a rise in fuel taxes — and a fraction of the 145,000 people who took part in peaceful climate marches Saturday around France, according to the ministry's figures.
Public support for the yellow vest movement that began on Nov. 17 and sought economic justice is fading as its message is being lost amid internal divisions and extremist violence at protests. After offering French workers a series of economic concessions to address their complaints, Marcon, the protesters' target, is now resurgent in the polls.
Cutting short a weekend ski trip, Macron met Sunday with security officials at the Paris crisis center overseeing the police response to the riots. The French president promised a crackdown on troublemakers who "want to destroy the republic, at the risk of killing people." But he also tweeted that the rioting showed that his government needs to do more to address protesters' concerns.
The Interior Ministry said Macron asked Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Castaner to meet to come up with a response to the repeated protest violence. Authorities and some protesters blamed extremists who come to demonstrations with the goal of attacking police and damaging property. They dress in black, including masks and hoods to make it hard for police to identify them, and often target symbols of capitalism.
On the Champs-Elysees, an eerie calm replaced the hours-long tear gas and arson chaos of the day before on the street that Parisians call "the most beautiful avenue in the world." No major French police presence was visible Sunday on the avenue and traffic rolled down cobblestones that only a day earlier had been the scene of fierce battles between rioters and police struggling to contain them.
Castaner went to the Champs-Elysees to lay a flower at the plaque commemorating a police officer killed in 2017 by an Islamic extremist that had been vandalized Saturday by some yellow vest protesters.
Passers-by lamented the damage to Xavier Jugele's memorial. "There's no more respect." said Guillaume Catel, 40, who was out shopping. "This man gave his life to protect France and this is the thanks he gets."
Milos Krivokapic and Elaine Ganley contributed to this report.
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