The French prime minister, Edouard Philippe, has held talks with ministers after opposition politicians accused the government of being unprepared for rioting during gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests on the Champs Élysées in Paris.
The president, Emmanuel Macron promised to come up with strong measures to prevent further violence after rioters threw paving stones at police and restaurants, luxury stores, news kiosks and cars were torched, ransacked and looted.
The police had seemed overrun as both rioters and protesters filled the Champs Élysées on Saturday afternoon. Masked men vandalised and later set fire to Le Fouquet’s brasserie, a favourite hangout of the rich and famous for the past century – as well as a Longchamp luxury handbag store, a bank, another restaurant and several news stands. A bank was set alight beneath apartment buildings where terrified families, including a mother and baby, had to be evacuated as their homes filled with smoke.
Rioters looted clothing stores, including Zara, and set fire to barricades in scenes reminiscent of the worst yellow vest riots in Paris at the start of December, which plunged the government into crisis.
“No one can say that the necessary security measures were in place,” said Jean-Christophe Lagarde of the centrist Union of Democrats and Independents party.
Paris’s Socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, demanded a meeting with Philippe over how the “extraordinary” violence was allowed to take place. She said she wanted the government to explain what happened and also to react.
“We’ve got to get out of this nightmare,” Hidalgo told Le Parisien newspaper, warning the “social and political crisis” in France was heightening divisions.
Laurent Wauquiez, the head of the rightwing Les Républicains party, said violence had been allowed to “degenerate” in the capital.
Saturday marked the 18th week of gilets jaunes protests. Numbers were higher than in recent weeks as protesters sought to make their voices heard at the end of Macron’s “great debate” nationwide consultation process. The president had promised the several weeks of town hall debates across the country would lessen discontent, but protesters dismissed it as a smokescreen.
Macron faced criticism from political opponents for being on a ski trip at the time of this weekend’s demonstrations. He rushed back from the slopes to chair a crisis meeting on Saturday night. He said: “There are people today who try by all means … to damage the republic by breaking, by destroying things at the risk of killing someone.” But he also tweeted that the rioting showed his government needed to do more to address protesters’ concerns.
The government said there were 10,000 gilets jaunes protesters in Paris on Saturday, including 1,500 “ultra-violent” activists who had led the disorder. A further 32,000 gilets jaunes demonstrated across France. These numbers were down on the almost 300,000 who turned out nationwide in November at the start of the fuel tax protests, which later morphed into a lasting anti-government movement.
About 80 businesses in Paris were damaged on Saturday. More than 200 people were arrested, including 15 youths under 18.
While there was unrest on the Champs Élysées and in a few neighbouring streets, the rest of Paris was unaffected. At the same time, another much larger protest took place calmly at Paris’s Place de la République. About 45,000 people marched for the climate, to demand the French government uphold its commitments on reducing emissions.
The US president, Donald Trump, seized on the Champs Élysées violence to attack France on Twitter, and repeat his contempt for warnings over climate change.
Philippe said on Sunday the damage in Paris “was not the work of protesters, but of looters, arsonists and criminals”. He added: “No cause justifies this violence.”