French President Emmanuel Macron has asked Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to meet with heads of political parties and representatives of the so-called “yellow vests” in an attempt to defuse tensions that erupted into violent protests over the weekend.
Around 36,000 people took part in protests across the country on Saturday, but while the turnout was lower than the previous two weekends, protesters clashed with police, torching cars, erecting roadblocks and burning barricades.
The unrest has transformed from dissent over rising gas prices and eco-taxes into a broader demonstration against Macron, his government, and tensions between the metropolitan elite and rural poor.
Speaking on France’s Europe 1 radio Sunday, spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said the government was considering “all options” to prevent “serious outbursts of violence,” including introducing a state of emergency.
Griveaux said that between 1,000 and 1,500 people joined Saturday’s demonstrations “only to fight with the police, to break and loot.” He added that those protesters “have nothing to do with the yellow vests.”
Yellow vests or “gilets jaunes” refers to the high visibility vests drivers in France are required to keep in their cars for safety reasons, should their cars break down.
Almost 400 people were arrested in Saturday’s riots.
As part of his response, Macron has asked the Ministry of the Interior to develop a policing plan to counter any further protests, according to CNN affiliate BFMTV. No date has yet been set for the meeting between Philippe and the yellow vests, BFMTV reported.
The protests were initially conceived in response to rising fuel prices. The cost of diesel has surged 16% this year from an average 1.24 euros ($1.41) per liter to 1.48 euros ($1.69), even hitting 1.53 euros in October, according to UFIP, France’s oil industry federation.
The price hike is largely caused by a leap in the wholesale price of oil, with Brent crude oil — a benchmark for worldwide oil purchases — increasing by more than 20% in the first half of 2018 from around $60 a barrel to a peak of $86.07 in early October.
Macron has borne the brunt of the demonstrators’ anger instead of OPEC for reducing oil production, or the US for imposing tariffs on Iran, which crippled oil exports.
Many protesters are angry with the president for extending the environmental policies that were first implemented by former President François Hollande.
President: Tributes to police
The weekend saw the protests in the French capital descend into violence, with buildings cars set alight, and, authorities say, attacks on citizens.
The city’s famed Arc de Triomphe — a flashpoint in Saturday’s violent protests — was also vandalized, scrawled with slogans in support of the yellow vest movement and others criticizing Macron as the President “of the rich.”
Upon his return to Paris from the G20 meeting, Macron immediately visited the war monument to “take stock of the damage” and pay tribute to the tomb of the unknown soldier at its base, CNN affiliate BFMTV reported. He also met with police officers and firefighters who worked to contain the protests.
Macron also held an emergency security meeting with top officials on Sunday. In a written statement he paid tribute to law enforcement and rescue teams who “showed unrelenting bravery throughout the day and evening,” according to a release from the French Presidency.
The statement also said that Macron “stressed the importance of judicial follow-up so that none of the acts committed remains unpunished.”
Arrested rioters to face ‘immediate trial’
French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said that the unrest was “absolutely unacceptable,” but added that she would not yet recommend announcing a state of emergency, stressing that there were “alternatives,” without elaborating what else was being considered.
“When there are not only defacements that are absolutely unacceptable in our republic, I think of what happened at the Arc de Triomphe, when there are fires, not only cars — there have been 55 vehicles burned but also buildings that have been burned, when there are attacks on people, including I think a rape, these are elements that cannot be acceptable in our republic.”
Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz alleged that among the protesters were people from across the country who had descended upon Paris with the express intent of causing trouble. He added that authorities would crack down hardest on those who had joined the street demonstrations explicitly carry out violent acts.
“There are varied profiles but there are definitely profiles of people who have come from the provinces all over France, obviously to carry out acts of violence, and it is to these people that the criminal response I will say will be the strongest.”