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Riots on Champs-Élysées: Why violence has become ‘legitimate’ for some Yellow Vests

Zakaria Abdelkafi, AFP | The government has attributed the violence to extreme elements who have infiltrated the movement from the left and right of the political spectrum.

Paris on Saturday saw a second ultra-violent Yellow Vest protest. Although the rioting has been blamed on extreme elements who have infiltrated the movement, some Yellow Vests have now accepted it as legitimate to achieve their goals, an expert says.

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For most, the March 16 violence in Paris dropped like a bomb shell: After weeks of weaker participation and the once-a-week rallies being contained by security forces without any major incidents, France’s Yellow Vest movement was being described as running out of steam. “Act XVIII” of the protests, however, showed that the Yellow Vests had not given up, and resulted in France’s emblematic Champs-Élysées boulevard being left in a pile of broken glass and flames.

The government has attributed the violence to extreme elements – so-called casseurs – who have infiltrated the movement from both the left and the right side of the political spectrum.

"Today's actions are not the work of protesters, but of looters, arsonists and criminals. No cause justifies this violence," Prime Minister Édouard Philippe tweeted after visiting the scene of the destruction.

While some Yellow Vests continue to fully distance themselves from the violence, others now appear willing to let the ransacking slide.

‘Can’t say I’m sorry’

“It’s been 18 weeks and we haven’t been listened to,” a Yellow Vest participant named John, from the eastern city of Nancy, was cited as telling French daily Le Monde on the sidelines of the demonstration. “Before, they [the extremists) scared everyone, but now we see it as an advantage. They are the ones who get things moving forward, we are being too pacifist ourselves.”

Sixty-year-old Isabelle from Essonne, agreed: “If I was younger, I’d join the clashes too. The biggest violence is that of the government, the one that is triggering the anger.”

Of the near 10,000 Yellow Vests who gathered for the protests, police said that a staggering 1,500 extremists had been identified. Some 240 people were also arrested on Saturday.

The shop windows of Boss, Etam, Nike, Swarowski and numerous other boutiques lining the boulevard were shattered during the demonstration and 11 people suffered minor injuries after the famed brasserie Le Fouquet was set alight, along with a bank and several news kiosks. Police said 42 protesters, 17 officers and one firefighter were also injured.

“Up until now, I’ve intervened whenever I’ve seen damage being carried out during the demonstrations, but now, I just think to myself ‘too bad’,” 39-year old Jennifer, from the Western city of Rouen, said. “When I saw them attack Le Fouquet– the symbol of oligarchy – I can’t say I was satisfied, but I can’t say I was sorry either.”

New attitude

According to French sociologist Michel Wieviorka, some Yellow Vests have – since their first demonstration four months ago – gradually changed their attitude towards the use of violence during their rallies.

“Some feel that the violence is legitimate – that’s the big drama of what this whole movement has brought us,” he told broadcaster France Inter on Sunday, noting that it is the first time since the 1968 student riots in Paris that violence has returned as a legitimate mode of action.

"The violence is the culmination of a movement which is unable to structure itself and define its leadership and which feels that its demands are less and less listened to," he said, but noted that the movement is increasingly being splintered into two separate groups.

“At the road blocks, people are against the violence and have nothing to do with it, it’s a social movement… But at the same time there’s the Paris protests, on Saturdays, and the violence doesn’t have much to do with the road blocks, but the two fuel each other,” he said.

Isolating the rioters

Saturday’s riots were the worst to hit the capital since December 1, when Paris saw the most violent demonstration in decades, and which included severe vandalism to one of the country’s most respected landmarks, the Arc de Triomphe.

That time, however, the Yellow Vest movement fully distanced itself from the violence and condemned it.

Following the December riots, Macron’s government decided to scrap the diesel tax that was the trigger for the rise of the movement, but by the time it was announced, the Yellow Vests had already swelled into a broader movement protesting the president himself, his reforms and French elitism in general.

This led to the 41-year-old leader announcing a concession package worth some €10 billion to boost the incomes of France’s poorest. He also launched a “national debate” meant to allow the French to have a greater say in France’s way forward. Saturday’s protest coincided with the end of the debates.

Macron's move initially seemed to have worked, with the number of Yellow Vest protesters declining week by week and with public opinion gradually turning against the movement, but Saturday’s violence underscored the government’s challenge of finding a way to weed out the rioters from the protesters.

The French president, who was forced to cut short a skiing trip in the Pyrénées to return to Paris for a crisis meeting, vowed to take "strong decisions" to prevent further violence.

"There are people today who try by all means... to damage the Republic by breaking, by destroying things at the risk of killing someone," Macron said.

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