Paris: French President Emmanuel Macron has ordered his Prime Minister to hold talks with other political leaders and demonstrators as he seeks a way out of fuel tax protests that are sweeping the country.
Riot police were overwhelmed on Saturday as "yellow vest" protesters ran amok in Paris' wealthiest neighbourhoods, torching dozens of cars, looting boutiques and smashing homes and cafes in the worst disturbances in the capital since 1968.
French President Emmanuel Macron meets firefighters and riot police officers on Sunday following violent protests at the Arc de Triomphe.Credit:AP
The "yellow vest" rebellion erupted on November 17 after a months-long build up on social media. Protesters have blocked roads across France and impeded access to shopping centres, fuel depots and airports. Fringe groups from the far-right and far-left have infiltrated some actions, including Saturday's protests in Paris, authorities say.
Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said the President was open to dialogue but would not reverse policy reforms.
"We won't change course. We are certain of that," he told Europe 1 radio.
As he spoke, workmen in the upper-crust district of central Paris set about cleaning the defaced Arc, removing charred hulks of cars and replacing the shattered windows of banks, restaurants and glitzy boutiques.
While the protests were initially against Macron's fuel tax hikes – necessary he says to combat climate change – they have also mined a vein of deep dissatisfaction felt towards his liberal reforms, which many voters feel favour the wealthy and big business.
Police said they had arrested more than 400 people in Paris on Saturday and that 133 were injured. Some 10,000 tear gas canisters and stun grenades were fired as well as water canon as security forces fought for control.
Macron's plight illustrates a conundrum: how do political leaders introduce policies that will do long-term good for the environment and for the economy without inflicting extra costs on voters that may damage their chances of re-election?
Demonstrators near the Arc de Triomphe on Saturday.Credit:AP
His unyielding response has exposed him to charges of being out of touch with common folk outside of France's big cities who worry about the squeeze on household budgets and job security.
The protests have driven Macron's popularity to record lows and left him facing a lose-lose situation, said Gael Sliman, president of the Odoxa polling institute said.
Either Macron caves in to the pressure and is derided by opponents as weak, or he puts down the dissent, Sliman said.
"In the second scenario, Macron will still come out loser, because what everyone will remember is that he wrestled with the popular classes. He would be victorious, but at the cost of having crushed them."
Before heading into Sunday's meeting, Macron met under heavy security with police and firefighters near the Champs-Elysees. Some bystanders cheered, others jeered and called on him to resign.
So too did Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of hard-left party La France Insoumise and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who both demanded the government unwind its fuel tax hikes. They called for the French Parliament to be dissolved and snap elections held.
Such an outcome is unlikely, however. Macron has more than three years left of his five-year mandate and a strong majority in Parliament, albeit with signs of simmering unease on the backbenches over his response to the protests.
TV footage showed the interior of the Arc ransacked, a statue of Marianne, symbol of the French republic, smashed, and graffiti scrawled on the exterior ranging from anti-capitalist slogans to social demands and calls for Macron's resignation.
On nearby streets, some Parisians worried about a repeat of the violence next weekend. The yellow vests have already called another demonstration in Paris.
"The violence is increasing at an exponential rate," said Claude, a resident in the affluent 16th district.
"The state is losing control, it is scary. They cannot let this happen. Maybe the army should intervene."
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