Paris rocked by gas ex­plo­sion and new wave of protests

Three dead in bak­ery blast as gilets jaunes num­bers in­crease by thou­sands

The Observer - - World - Kim Will­sher Paris

The French cap­i­tal was rocked yes­ter­day by a ninth week­end of gilets jaunes protests and a huge gas ex­plo­sion that killed three peo­ple and in­jured at least 46 oth­ers, nine of them crit­i­cally.

The blast, which ripped through a build­ing in the 9th ar­rondisse­ment, was caused by a “pocket of gas”, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said, as they con­firmed that two fire­fight­ers and a Span­ish woman were killed. An­other fire­fighter was trapped un­der the rub­ble of the de­stroyed build­ing for twoand-a-half hours be­fore be­ing res­cued by col­leagues.

The ex­plo­sion, which was so pow­er­ful it over­turned ve­hi­cles parked in the street and set them alight, brought added chaos to a city that has borne the brunt of the na­tion­wide gilets jaunes protests held in re­cent weeks. Yes­ter­day of­fi­cials said 32,000 demon­stra­tors turned out across the coun­try, sev­eral thou­sand more than last week­end. The gilets jaunes – named af­ter the high-vis yel­low vests French mo­torists must carry in their ve­hi­cles – said the num­ber was higher but did not give a fig­ure.

Af­ter the vi­o­lence of pre­vi­ous weeks, the gov­ern­ment en­gaged in a show of strength, de­ploy­ing 80,000 po­lice of­fi­cers na­tion­wide – 7,000 of them in Paris. As night fell, se­cu­rity forces used tear gas and wa­ter can­non against gilets jaunes at the Arc de Tri­om­phe.

In Bourges, a town of 66,000 peo­ple – cho­sen be­cause of its cen­tral lo­ca­tion – gilets jaunes gath­ered de­spite a ban on protest­ing in the his­toric cen­tre.

Po­lice said 75 peo­ple were ar­rested in Paris for car­ry­ing weapons and 167 in Bourges. There were also demon­stra­tions in Bordeaux, and gilets jaunes con­tin­ued to block traf­fic at round­abouts across the coun­try.

The lat­est opin­ion polls show a slight re­duc­tion in the high level of pub­lic sup­port for the gilets jaunes fol­low­ing last week­end’s vi­o­lence, and a slight in­crease in pop­u­lar­ity for pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron whose ap­proval rat­ing re­mains at 30%. This week the pres­i­dent is to stake his po­lit­i­cal fu­ture on an open let­ter to the French and a na­tional de­bate to sound out the pub­lic on four themes: tax­a­tion, state in­sti­tu­tions, democ­racy and cit­i­zen­ship.

Bruno Cautrès of the elite Sciences Po po­lit­i­cal re­search unit CEVIPOF said the gilets jaunes move­ment was at a “cross­roads”.

“We are be­gin­ning to see in our re­search that the ques­tion of vi­o­lence will po­larise the move­ment be­tween those, like mem­bers of the France In­soumise [po­lit­i­cally far left] and the Rassem­ble­ment Na­tionale [far right], who feel this vi­o­lence might be jus­ti­fied and oth­ers who feel it’s gone too far. Hav­ing said that, the level of sup­port for the gilets jaunes re­mains high.”

Macron will pub­lish an open let­ter to the French peo­ple to­mor­row to “ex­plain what I in­tend to do”. He said the de­bate was “a vi­tal and very use­ful mo­ment for our coun­try”.

Cautrès added: “There is a sit­u­a­tion of ex­treme ten­sion and frus­tra­tion in the coun­try. Our re­search shows a re­jec­tion of pol­i­tics, politi­cians and po­lit­i­cal par­ties to the point of dis­gust and distrust. The level of this is re­ally in­cred­i­ble.

“At the mo­ment we don’t know the po­si­tion Macron will take: will it be, ‘I have heard the peo­ple but I’m con­tin­u­ing my re­forms’ or ‘I have heard the peo­ple and will adapt my pro­gramme’? That’s the un­known el­e­ment.”

Pho­to­graph by Thomas Sam­son/AFP

Two fire­fight­ers and a Span­ish woman died in the blast.

More than 40 peo­ple were hurt in the mas­sive ex­plo­sion which de­stroyed the bak­ery.

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