France's President Emmanuel Macron gestures at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya Thursday, March 14, 2019. Macron said at the conference Thursday that energy resources like coal that fueled industrialization in the developed world are no longer viable because they create pollution. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)

French yellow vest protesters clash with police in Paris

March 16, 2019 - 7:51 am

PARIS (AP) — French yellow vest protesters clashed Saturday with riot police near the Arc de Triomphe and vandalized luxury stores as they kicked off their 18th straight weekend of demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron.

The violence started when protesters threw smoke bombs and other objects at officers along the Champs-Elysees — scene of repeated past rioting — and started pounding on the windows of a police van. Riot police then retreated, with protesters kicking the side of the large truck.

Later, water cannon unleashed bursts from a side street to try to push back protesters clustered between a Cartier boutique and a Mont Blanc store.

Police fired tear gas that spread across the cobblestone street surrounding the Arc de Triomphe. A fire was set outside a sandwich store on the Champs-Elysees, and a burning vehicle was seen next to luxury boutique Kenzo nearby. Boutiques including luxury brand Lacoste were smashed up, and mannequins thrown out of the broken windows. An eatery called Fouquet's, which is popular with politicians and celebrities, was vandalized.

Paris police told The Associated Press that 44 people were arrested by midday. Bracing for a potential uptick in protester numbers and violence, the French capital deployed more police Saturday than in previous weekends. Police closed down several streets and fanned out around the Right Bank.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner ordered police to retaliate against "inadmissible" acts, and condemned those who "call for violence and are here to sow chaos in Paris."

After dwindling numbers in recent weekends, protesters are hoping their latest day of action can breathe new life into their movement against a president seen as favoring the elite.

Yellow vest groups representing teachers, unemployed people and labor unions were among those that organized dozens of rallies and marches Saturday in the capital and around France.

The actions mark the end of a two-month national debate that Macron organized to respond to protesters' concerns.

Protesters dismiss the debate as empty words and a campaign ploy by Macron for European Parliament elections in May. They are angry over high taxes and Macron policies seen as coddling the business world.

"Those who participated in this great debate are mostly retirees and upper middle class, meaning Macron's electorate, even though we understood this great national debate was supposed to respond to the yellow vest crisis," lawyer and yellow vest protester Francois Boulo told Europe-1 radio.

In their online appeal for Saturday's protests, organizers said they wanted the day to serve as an "ultimatum" to "the government and the powerful."

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Chris den Hond, Milos Krivokapic and Catherine Gaschka in Paris contributed.

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