As Macron hides in his palace, the French rev­o­lu­tion spreads to Brus­sels

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - News - From Ian Gal­lagher IN PARIS and Ian Bir­rell IN MAR­SEILLES

ALL day long Em­manuel Macron skulked be­hind the ma­jes­tic walls of his pres­i­den­tial palace while out­side, his city – and his coun­try – once again erupted in fury.

Not only was the El­y­see Palace guarded by hun­dreds of riot po­lice but also ar­moured cars bear­ing machine guns and grenade launch­ers. Ex­ces­sive per­haps, but few who spent any time in Paris yes­ter­day would doubt that but for this for­mi­da­ble ring of steel, the mob would have surely tried to storm in­side.

It was a day of reck­on­ing, a day of in­sur­rec­tion. And this time the rev­o­lu­tion­ary spirit was catch­ing. There were also dis­tur­bances in Mar­seilles, France’s sec­ond city, and in Brus­sels.

In Paris, around mid-morn­ing, three tear-gas cap­sules rolled to a halt at the feet of a group of ‘yellow vest’ pro­test­ers milling out­side the Flora Dan­ica brasserie on the Champs-El­y­sees. The men ap­peared to scarcely reg­is­ter this at­tempt to dis­perse them. A few peeled away, not with any sense of ur­gency, but with de­ter­mined in­sou­ciance, as if run­ning would show weak­ness. Even­tu­ally, some­one picked up the can­is­ter and tossed it back at po­lice.

An­other was booted away and, as it spun down the boule­vard, a light breeze caught the smoke, lift­ing it above the trees fes­tooned with Christ­mas lights. ‘Take that, Macron,’ cried one pro­tester.

The yellow vests were orig­i­nally worn by work­ers upset about petrol tax in­creases, de­clin­ing liv­ing stan­dards and di­min­ished rights. But their protest has since swelled into a mas­sive, amor­phous re­bel­lion. The de­mands of in­ter­est groups vary but all are united in want­ing both Mr Macron’s res­ig­na­tion and an emer­gency elec­tion.

It seemed to mat­ter not to pro­test­ers that the gov­ern­ment promised to sus­pend fuel tax in­creases for at least six months to defuse the ri­ot­ing – the first U-turn by Macron since he came to power in 2017.

Then, he saved France from the pop­ulist tide. Cast as the saviour of Europe and a vi­sion­ary in the JFK mould, he was the leader who some joked could walk on wa­ter.

Yet, as his pres­i­den­tial term un­folded and he sur­rounded him­self with a team of tech­nocrats, he was ac­cused of ig­nor­ing the masses. His tax pol­icy, it was ar­gued, made him the ‘pres­i­dent of the rich’. His ap­proval rat­ings plum­meted.

And last week, Macron was bit­terly crit­i­cised for choos­ing to stay out of the pub­lic eye, pre­fer­ring in­stead to hold closed-door meetings in the El­y­see Palace, seen by many as his ivory tower.

Shel­ter­ing from tear gas in the door­way of a bank, one pro­tester, Sa­muel, 28, said: ‘Make no mis­take, Macron has be­come the fo­cus of anger and I can’t see all this end­ing until he falls.

‘What you are see­ing here to­day is a lit­tle rev­o­lu­tion. Whether it gets big­ger only time will tell.’

At just af­ter dawn, the first pro­test­ers headed for the Arc de Tri­om­phe, de­faced dur­ing the pre­vi­ous week’s demon­stra­tion. They found it ringed with po­lice cars and vans and of­fi­cers clad in pro­tec­tive cloth­ing stand­ing sternly be­hind riot shields. The au­thor­i­ties clearly weren’t tak­ing any chances. Else­where there had al­ready been 350 ar­rests and it was still only break­fast. Base­ball bats, ham­mers and gas can­is­ters were con­fis­cated. Metal petanque balls were found, ad­ding a Gal­lic touch to the arse­nal.

By mid-morn­ing though, the in­sur­rec­tion still felt be­nign. In the Av­enue D’Iena – link­ing the Arc de Tri­om­phe and the Eif­fel Tower – a man and his son kicked a ball around. A few cafes of­fered break­fast. Paris was go­ing about its busi­ness, or at least try­ing to.

On the Av­enue Kle­ber, which was heav­ily tar­geted last week, its res­i­dents’ lux­ury cars torched, ner­vous­ness pre­vailed. Some were va­cat­ing the grand old apart­ment build­ings and head­ing off to stay with friends and fam­ily. ‘We thought that noth­ing could be as bad as last Satur­day,’ said 39-yearold Fouzia Robert, an in­vest­ment banker. ‘But we are told that to­day will be as bad, pos­si­bly more vi­o­lent. I’m go­ing to the coun­try.’

At that mo­ment, 21 riot po­lice vans be­gan thun­der­ing past. Madame Robert shook her head and drew a deep breath. Nearby a youth dressed in black stand­ing on a street cor­ner hurled an uniden­ti­fied mis­sile at the con­voy.

It was the cue for the wait­ers of nearby Cafe Bel­loy, which had been valiantly declar­ing busi­ness as usual, to shut its doors. Much of Paris looked like a ghost town, with mu­se­ums and stores closed on what should have been a busy pre-Christ­mas shop­ping day.

Tourists were scarce and res­i­dents were ad­vised to stay at home if pos­si­ble. Dozens of streets were closed to traf­fic, while the Eif­fel Tower and mu­se­ums such as the Lou­vre, Musee d’Or­say and the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou were shut.

At mid­day on the Champs-El­y­sees, now filled with clouds of tear gas, thou­sands were squar­ing up to the riot po­lice who stopped them march­ing on Macron’s palace. Hav­ing first boxed the pro­test­ers into the boule­vard, of­fi­cers later chased them into side streets.

High above, dis­ap­pear­ing in and out of grey clouds, a po­lice he­li­copter cir­cled. As it did in pre­vi­ous weeks, the mid­dle of the af­ter­noon brought sin­is­ter el­e­ments on to the front line. The chant­ing sud­denly gave way to vi­o­lence.

By night­fall, pro­test­ers were back on the Champs-El­y­sees, fight­ing pitched bat­tles with po­lice among the Christ­mas lights. In re­sponse to tear gas, they let off flares.

‘This is what hap­pens when you gov­ern against your peo­ple,’ said a bearded pro­tester. ‘It’s a les­son for Macron – but I think it’s one he may have learned too late.’

Nearly 500 miles away in Mar­seilles, po­lice brought ar­moured ve­hi­cles on to the streets as a 2,000strong protest turned vi­o­lent. The city cen­tre was taken over by ma­raud­ing gangs of youths as they smashed bank win­dows, looted and set Christ­mas trees ablaze.

In Brus­sels, pro­test­ers threw paving stones, road signs, fire­works, flares and other ob­jects at po­lice block­ing their en­try to an area where gov­ern­ment build­ings and the parliament are lo­cated.

‘He is the fo­cus of anger – it won’t end until he falls’

ON THE FRONT LINE: Riot po­lice charge as ar­moured ve­hi­cles are torched, right

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