Protests In France Over High Gas Prices Escalate To Violence French President Emmanuel Macron is chairing an urgent security meeting in Paris to discuss the riots that have spread across the country. He could declare a state of emergency to contain the unrest.

Protests In France Over High Gas Prices Escalate To Violence

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There's a political crisis in France. Protesters there have been rallying against new taxes aimed at trying to mitigate the effects of climate change. Over the weekend, the protests got violent. Rioters in Paris and other cities burned cars, they smashed store windows and defaced public buildings. So where does all this leave French President Emmanuel Macron and his economic agenda? We go to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reporting in Paris for us this morning. Good morning, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What exactly happened over the weekend?

BEARDSLEY: Well, just take a listen to this video taken on a cellphone from a Parisian out of her apartment window in downtown Paris.



BEARDSLEY: So basically it's a horde of enraged yellow vest protesters charging riot police, throwing paving stones and other objects. They're, you know, going - moving back behind their shields. Such scenes of violence, Rachel, have shocked the country.


BEARDSLEY: More than a hundred cars were burned in Paris, monuments defaced. Streets were dug up for the paving zone - paving stones. This level of revolt and violence has not been seen since May 1968. More than 400 people have been arrested. They're said to be from age 25 to 45 mostly from outside of Paris, of course mostly all men. There are some far-right and far-left extremists among them, but many of them are what are being described now as radicalized yellow vest protesters.

MARTIN: And they're called yellow vest protesters because they are - they actually physically wear yellow vests on these protests.

BEARDSLEY: That's right.

MARTIN: And what do they want? What are they agitating against?

BEARDSLEY: Well, they rose up three weeks ago - and they all put these yellow vests that you have to keep - every French motorist keeps in their car - against a new gas tax that's supposed to begin in January. But it's a very different movement. It's not backed by the unions. It has no leaders, so there's - we haven't seen anything like this before. Basically, it's being described as a revolt from the other France - not the France of the big cities, you know, the rich France, but the - from the France that can't make ends meet every month, from the rural areas, the small towns, you know, blue-collar workers, farmers. You know, it's just showing - this movement - how split France is, really, between rich and poor. And these protesters - they also accuse French President Emmanuel Macron of being arrogant and completely out of touch with their problems, the problems of the working and underclass. Now, Macron was actually in Argentina for the G-20 when this happened. But he arrived Sunday morning, and he went straight to the Arc de Triomphe, which is a huge monument in Paris. It's been defaced, covered in graffiti - a lot of it against him.


BEARDSLEY: And it was a scene of intense fighting, Rachel. I was out there. I wasn't in the fighting, but I can tell you it was very strange to see black plumes of smoke rising up over the Arc de Triomphe. Just three weeks ago, Macron had welcomed world leaders under the Arc de Triomphe to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I. Now, I want you to listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Yelling in French, clapping).



UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Yelling in French, clapping).

MARTIN: Clapping.

BEARDSLEY: That's - yeah, that's Macron. He walked out into the neighborhoods that were damaged. And some people clapped for him, as you can hear. But there are a lot of boos and people calling for him to step down, and that kind of sums up the sentiment of the protesters. They're angry at him. Listen especially to these two people - what they say.



BEARDSLEY: Now, they're saying Macron loves the powerful, the rich, the CEOs, but he has complete disdain for the people. And this - the woman says, "we're governed by mafia bankers, and Macron is a pawn of Rothschild's bank and JPMorgan."

MARTIN: Wow. So how does he dispel that? I mean, what's Macron's next move?

BEARDSLEY: Well, they're taking this very seriously. He sort of minimized the movement for three weeks. But now today the prime minister is consulting with the opposition leaders in parliament. He's meeting, for example, with Marine Le Pen. Tomorrow they're going to receive at Matignon, the prime minister's office, delegation from the yellow vest movement. And on Wednesday, a debate is being planned in the National Assembly to find solutions because this just can't happen again. So far, Macron's refused to drop this tax, but he may have no choice but to drop it.

MARTIN: Are the protesters getting broader political support? I mean, when the French are looking at this in other corners - the people who aren't on the streets, are they supportive of the protesters?

BEARDSLEY: Right. Well, up to now, about 80 percent of the French say they support the demands because they say a lot of people can't make ends meet and they're ignored. But after this violence, they probably were thinking the - this level of support will go down. Polls are being taken today, so we'll see.

MARTIN: How big a challenge is this to Macron's overall leadership?

BEARDSLEY: Rachel, it's huge because even the French who support him - they say he has a tin ear; he's just totally out of touch with the country, you know, the heartland, the people. Some analysts are saying this is it; he's lost his authority; this is a turning point. So he's got to get control. The violence has to stop, or the government will be blamed. The yellow vesters (ph) say they'll be back out this weekend if some demands are not met, and everyone agrees there cannot be scenes of an assault on Paris again.

MARTIN: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Thanks so much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Rachel.

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