French President Emmanuel Macron returned to France on Sunday from a summit in Argentina to find his country in turmoil after a day of violent protests.
After surveying the destruction for himself, Mr. Macron ordered Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to meet with representatives of the “Yellow Vests” protest movement and with the leaders of the opposition political parties. Those meetings will start Monday.
A third weekend of nationwide protests by the movement, largely made up of working-class people angry about a planned increase in fuel taxes and their dwindling purchasing power, left burned cars and smashed store windows in several of the wealthiest neighbourhoods of Paris. The movement is named for the high-visibility safety vests that motorists are supposed to wear when they have roadside breakdowns.
Broken glass and empty tear gas canisters fired by police littered the city, where hundreds of vandals joined the ranks of the protesters. One person died in the unrest this weekend outside Paris, bringing to three the number of casualties on the margins of the demonstrations over the past three weekends of protests.
More than 260 people were wounded nationwide, at least 133 of them in Paris, according to the prefecture of police. Some were bystanders caught in the fray who needed treatment after exposure to tear gas. About 412 people were arrested nationwide.
The police prefect of Paris, Michel Delpuech, said at a news conference late Sunday that police had been faced with “extreme and unprecedented violence” and that protesters had thrown hammers and steel ballbearings at them.
Firefighters extinguished nearly 250 blazes that destroyed 112 cars and burned other property, including several buildings. The cost of the damage was being assessed Sunday.
Many of those arrested were men in their 30s and 40s, some from the far right and some from the far left, but also “a number of protesters wearing yellow vests” who did not hesitate to join the fray, said Rémy Heitz, the Paris prosecutor.
The Interior Minister, Christophe Castaner, said Sunday that he would not rule out the President declaring a state of emergency, but by day’s end that appeared less likely, at least for the time being. The President has emergency powers that were expanded after the terrorist attacks of November, 2015.
“It is out of the question that each weekend becomes a ritual of violence,” a government spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, said in an interview on Europe 1.
The Élysée Palace said Sunday that Mr. Macron would not comment on the protests.
Mr. Macron visited one of the worst-hit streets, the Avenue Kléber, where about a third of the stores were vandalized and all of the ATMs were smashed. He was both booed and cheered.
He also inspected the damage to the Arc de Triomphe, where supporters of the Yellow Vests had scrawled messages. He climbed to the top of the monument, as some of the Yellow Vests had done Saturday night; it was now ringed with hundreds of police officers and special riot squads.
The graffiti seemed targeted at Mr. Macron, who has been described as the “president of the rich.”
“The Yellow Vests Will Triumph” and “Macron Quit,” read two of the scrawls. Others reported in Le Monde, France’s leading newspaper, said: “Topple the bourgeoisie,” “We cut off heads for less than this” and “May 1968, December 2018.”
The last message appeared to link the current protests with the nationwide strikes and fights with police in 1968 that resulted in major social changes and compromises with workers.
The protesters’ anger was visible in the many streets that fan out from the Arc de Triomphe, which dominates one end of the Champs-Élysées, and along several other commercial avenues, where looters had broken windows, burned cars and built barricades. Vandals also targeted the wealthy area around the Church of St.-Augustin, just off Avenue Haussmann, a major shopping street with famous department stores like Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayette.
The flagship Chanel store windows were shattered, as were those of several supermarkets. Looters appeared to have stolen beer from a grocery store on Avenue Hoche, leaving the bottles and boxes on the street. Planters had been dragged from cafes, overturned and used as barricades.
Protesters in other French cities also turned to violence, injuring police officers and setting fires. Affected cities included Bourdeaux, Nantes and Toulouse, although none were damaged as much as Paris.
Of those arrested, 378 were still being held late Sunday for questioning. The Interior Ministry said protests this weekend had drawn 136,000 people nationwide, slightly down from the 166,000 who gathered last week.
Politicians and law enforcement officials alike said that the situation was close to an “insurrection.”
Although the government has made no sign of reversing course on the gas tax increase that precipitated the most recent protests or of reducing other taxes, some of the Yellow Vests indicated that they were ready to negotiate.
It is difficult to determine who represents the movement, which has no official leader or membership. But a group of 10 representatives wrote an opinion piece in the Journal du Dimanche, a weekly newspaper, calling for negotiations with the government.
They called for an “immediate and unconditional freeze in the tax increase on fuel” as well as the cancellation of new and more rigorous vehicle inspection rules, which raise costs for drivers. They also asked to change the electoral system to one of proportional representation, which would benefit smaller parties, including those on the far left and far right.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far left, and Marine Le Pen, his counterpart on the far right, both called for the dissolution of the National Assembly. Such a move would force the government to call parliamentary elections, putting Macron’s majority at risk.
“We are in a situation that is almost insurrectional,” Mr. Mélenchon said in an interview on BFM-TV, a major network. “These are pages in the history of France comparable to 1968. Everything must be dealt with by having a larger perspective.”
“The President has chosen the worst: Counting on the degradation” of the Yellow Vest movement, Mr. Mélenchon added, blaming the President for not meeting with representatives of the protesters Sunday.