PARIS, France — French police made dozens of arrests across France Saturday amid violent anti-government protests described by one of the protesters as a “civil war,” CNN affiliate BFM reported.
In Paris, police resorted to tear gas and water cannon to try to clear the Champs Elysée.
“The objective was to unite everybody here in Paris. I am disappointed because it wasn’t meant to be like this,” Thierry Paul Valette, one of the organizers of Saturday’s demonstration in Paris told CNN.
He blamed it on a “small section” of “the extreme left and the extreme right” and said it was like a “civil war.”
In total, 35 people were taken into custody.
The “yellow vest” protests, which began as a campaign against rising gas prices, have morphed into a wider demonstration against the government of President Emmanuel Macron in recent weeks, spreading as far as France’s Indian Ocean territory of Reunion.
Police say they have mobilized 3,000 officers in Paris to contain the 8,000 protesters. A security perimeter has been set up in the city center, with government buildings protected. Three people have been arrested so far.
At a news conference on Saturday, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner blamed the clashes on far-right extemists infiltrating the demonstrations.
“Today, the far right has mobilized,” he told reporters. “The security forces perfectly anticipated this situation.”
Far-right political leader Marine Le Pen rejected the accusations, describing them as a “pathetic and dishonest” form of “political manipulation” by the government.
Earlier Castaner said of the protesters: “Their freedom of expression will be guaranteed, but it must not be exercised to the detriment of security, public order and the right of everybody to come and go. There is no liberty without public order.”
Last weekend a protester was accidentally run over and killed by a car, and more than 200 people were injured during a demonstration in eastern France.
Macron under fire
In addition to concerns over spiraling fuel prices, the protests also reflect long-running tensions between the metropolitan elite and rural poor.
Diesel prices have 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.
French protesters are, however, not directing their anger at OPEC for reducing oil production, or at the US administration for implementing tariffs on Iran, crippling its oil exports.
Macron is instead bearing the brunt of widespread French discontent, with many protesters furious at the current leader’s extension of environmental policies implemented under François Hollande’s government.
Notably, taxes were increased by 8 centimes last January on diesel, and by 4 centimes on petrol. Tax on diesel will also increase by another 6.4 euro cents in 2019, and by 2.9 cents for petrol. These rises follow many decades of under-taxation of diesel in France.
The growing resentment has also been a springboard for partisan political attacks, with opponents of Macron’s centrist En Marche party attempting to energize their bases to fuel further revolt.
One protester, Ludivine Landrin, a 32-year-old from near Paris, explained why she was protesting. “I’m here because I am a citizen. I want the struggle to come together. I want the French state to understand that we are here together. We want another state, we want another government,” she told CNN.
“In France we have a lot of taxes. The beginning of the movement was about taxes on fuel. The movement became bigger because all the taxes are making people fed up. The Macron government is making everyone fed up — on the right and on the left. We are all fed up with Macron and his government.”
Another protester, 33-year-old Emilie, declared that a revolution was happening. “We pay our taxes but it is only the rich who profit,” she said.