In the heart of Paris, the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe were scaled by protesters and graffitied on Saturday. Police fired tear gas, stun grenades, and water cannons at masked citizens donning bright yellow vests as they (the citizens) set fire to buildings and hurled crude projectiles in the streets.
Recent hikes in gas prices under President Emmanuel Macron have driven people to form a leaderless movement on social media and take to the streets.The most recent announcement of another tax increase set to begin on News Years Day initiated the first wave of demonstrations in mid-November. The price hike will add to an existing 23% rise in diesel costs that's occurred during Macron's first year as president.
In France, all drivers must keep reflective yellow vests in their vehicles under a 2008 policy; the "gilet jaunes" or "Yellow Vest" movement represents motorists' protest of the added tax burden on fuel and government officials' blindness to civilian struggles.
The 36,000 demonstrators created the most violent display of civil disobedience to take place in the capital in more than a decade. The protests left 3 dead, 100 injured (including members of the French police), and nearly 400 arrests. The third wave of protests in as many weeks turned into "urban warfare" and "the worst riots in a generation," according to witnesses of flaming cars, vandalized buildings, and clashes between the French police and a faction of criminals who are said to have joined the protest solely to wreak havoc.
While prices of oil have risen worldwide over the past year, the French government has added its own taxes to the burden as part of their environmental policies. Macron's administration defends the new taxes as efforts to lower carbon emissions and encourage people to purchase more energy efficient cars–but the expectation that French citizens can alter their lifestyles and modes of transportation at the government's behest is out of touch with reality. Furthermore, increasing fuel prices places an unbalanced burden on working people who can't afford to reside in major cities and who rely on their cars to commute from and around rural and suburban areas.
But in many ways, the tax hike is only a capstone of social inequality that has frustrated citizens for too long. Florence, a 55-year-old demonstrator who works for a freight company outside Paris, expressed his motivations to The Guardian:
"We are here to protest against the government because of the rise in taxes [in general], not just petrol taxes, which is the straw that broke the camel's back. We've had enough. We have low salaries and pay too much tax and the combination is creating more and more poverty."
In response to public dissent, President Macron called an emergency security meeting on Sunday. His official statements have condemned the use of violence and defacement of national monuments. He said, "No cause justifies that authorities are attacked, that businesses are plundered, that passers-by or journalists are threatened or that the Arc du Triomphe is defiled." He also praised the emergency responders and French police, whom are seen below firing tear gas and water cannons at protesters, saying they've "showed unrelenting bravery throughout the day and evening."
French police fire teargas at 'gilets jaunes' protesters in Paris youtu.be
Outside of France, Parisians' actions against inequality seem to have inspired copycat riots in Belgium. Famke Krumbmuller, head of a Paris-based political consultancy, noted the protests touched a familiar chord and sent reverberations throughout Western Europe. She told CNBC, "I guess what's specific to this movement is that it is relatively apolitical, so they (the protesters) are not from just one party on the left or right. They're white, middle-class people that are squeezed by the welfare state. They pay a lot of taxes but they don't get a lot of benefits in return."
Looking ahead, President Macron's asked Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to hold a meeting with leaders of France's political parties and representatives from the "Yellow Vest" movement in order to negotiate a return to peace. However, according to the French paper Le Télégramme, some members of the "collective" oppose a meeting, claiming, "The government is only looking for a communication plan and we do not want to be a puppet." Another representative of the group, Christophe Chalençon, actually looks forward to the meeting, where he plans on asking the Prime Minister to resign.