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A protestor waves a French flag amid smoke during clash with riot police near the Champs Elysees in Paris on December 8, 2018.

LUCAS BARIOULET/AFP/Getty Images

A fourth weekend of anti-government protests in France turned violent again Saturday, with demonstrators in Paris burning cars and ripping down barricades from storefronts, while the riot police fired tear gas and water cannons to control the crowds.

The Yellow Vests descended on the capital by the thousands, even as police turned out in force, blocking off roads and monuments.

Nearly 1,400 people were arrested nationwide. In Paris, many were detained before they could even reach the central site of the demonstrations along Paris’ main artery, the Champs-Élysées.

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The huge police presence in the capital — absent last Saturday — appeared far more able to contain the violence. The show of force reflected a change from preceding weeks, with law enforcement often engaging with the vandals before they could act.

“The situation is under control even though there are still some hot spots in the provinces,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said Saturday evening.

“The escalation of violence has been brought to a stopping point,” he added, crediting the more mobile strategy of police. The violence, while contained, was “totally unacceptable,” he said.

The minister said 118 demonstrators and 17 police officers were injured nationwide on Saturday. Last week, about 200 protesters were injured, as well as more than 200 police officers.

Konrad Yakabuski: Macron is dangerously close to becoming French toast

Since the demonstrations began four weeks ago, four people have died.

The Yellow Vests take their name from the fluorescent hazard vests adopted by the protesters as a sign of their economic distress.

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Initially, their ranks were filled by members of the working poor from rural areas and urban outskirts, who were dismayed by a planned increase in a fuel tax, which the government canceled this past week in a retreat.

But that did not quell the outrage, which has morphed into much broader anger at President Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies, and France’s declining living standards.

The Yellow Vests have inspired copycat demonstrations elsewhere, including in the Netherlands, Hungary and neighboring Belgium.

About 100 people were detained in Belgium on Saturday as police used tear gas and water cannons against at least 1,000 protesters who threw stones and smashed street signs and traffic lights.

In Paris, a planned climate march by environmentalists in support of policies to slow global warming drew about 17,000 people, more than the Yellow Vest protests, according to the government.

That demonstration was supposed to be held not far from some of the Yellow Vest protest areas, but was moved to another part of Paris.

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President Donald Trump weighed in on the riots in several tweets; one said it may be time to do away with the Paris climate change accord, from which the United States has withdrawn.

“Very sad day & night in Paris,” he said. “Maybe it’s time to end the ridiculous and extremely expensive Paris Agreement and return money back to the people in the form of lower taxes?”

Édouard Philippe, the French prime minister, said Macron would speak early next week to address the movement. The president has been criticized for remaining silent about the protests.

Around the country, more than 125,000 people turned out for mostly peacefully demonstrations in cities including Marseille, Nice and Nantes, authorities said.

But later in the day, clashes broke out in Bordeaux and Toulouse, where protesters set makeshift barricades on fire.

Overall, the number of protesters nationwide has dwindled since more than 280,000 turned out the first weekend on Nov. 17, according to the French authorities.

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This week was the lowest turnout since the movement began. And in Paris, the unrest did not rise to the level of last weekend’s protests, the country’s worst urban unrest in decades.

But some of the dire warnings about violence from French officials did come to pass.

By midafternoon in Paris, more radical elements and professional vandals — known as “casseurs,” or “breakers” — had ripped down plywood barricades that had been placed over the windows of nearly every business in hopes of preventing smashing and looting.

The Champs-Élysées was quickly covered in tear gas, and hundreds of people beat a hasty retreat down the avenue.

In some areas, the casseurs — young men dressed in black — could easily be distinguished from the Yellow Vests, often middle-aged men from the countryside.

In at least two instances on the Champs-Élysées, Yellow Vests replaced protective boards ripped down from shop windows by the casseurs.

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And Yellow Vests looked on in horror and bemusement as vandals smashed in the windows of a sporting-goods store and made off with boxes of sneakers on one chic avenue around the Arc de Triomphe.

“This is just madness,” said a middle-aged Yellow Vest, Franck Morlat, a train driver who had traveled from central France. “Totally unacceptable.”

Others around him looked disgusted.

As protesters were smashing in windows with golf clubs, an ambulance driver and Yellow Vest who gave her name only as Stephanie said: “Sure it’s sad. But if it hadn’t come to this, nothing would change.”

Demonstrators tried to set fire to a drugstore on the Champs-Élysées, placing burning Christmas trees against the facade. A line of police officers charged down the avenue, dispersing the crowd and knocking down barricades hastily erected by small groups of demonstrators.

The melees were punctuated by shouts of “Macron Resign,” impromptu bursts of the French national anthem, and curses spat at police and members of the media.

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Elsewhere in the city, a car burned out of control as police moved in to chase away the vandals. A line of armored vehicles moved down a boulevard, trying to disperse stone-throwing casseurs and to break up barricades.

Police officers on horseback charged a group of vandals set to wreak havoc on a business-lined street at the edge of the historic Marais district.

“This time they gave themselves the means to master the casseurs,” said Christian Mouhanna, a police expert at the National Center for Scientific Research.

“Why, the last time, did they let the casseurs get away with so much?” Mouhanna asked. “They saw that that strategy didn’t work.”

About 89,000 members of the security forces were deployed across the country Saturday, including 8,000 in Paris, compared with 4,600 a week earlier.

In a rare step, the gendarmerie, one of the country’s two national police forces, deployed 12 armored vehicles in the French capital, a sign of the authorities’ nervousness.

At the start of the day in Paris, eight police vehicles blocked access to the Arc de Triomphe, a quasi-sacred national symbol that was defaced last weekend.

Police also hemmed in demonstrators at the other end of the Champs-Élysées, near the seat of the French presidency and the Place de la Concorde.

Police detachments were set up at all major central Paris intersections. Stores and dozens of city buildings as well as most monuments and museums were closed, even those far from the protest areas, including the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay.

The city’s two opera houses canceled Saturday shows. More than 35 subway stops were closed.

City workers removed more than 2,000 metal gratings, construction barriers and other items to prevent them from being used as weapons or as barricades. Officials also recommended that people move their vehicles and bicycles from protest areas. Residents of many wealthier neighborhoods in Paris left as a precaution.

Elsewhere in France, authorities also took steps to prevent violence.

The top French soccer league postponed six games across the country, including in Paris, Toulouse, Angers and Nîmes.

Museums were closed in Bordeaux, and Lyon took extra security measures for its annual Light Festival.

Throughout Saturday, the determination of the protesters in Paris did not change, nor had their motivation.

“We drove all night,” said Julien Lezer, an electrician from the Var region, on the Mediterranean. “We don’t agree with the current system anymore; it doesn’t represent us.”

“It’s not in the regions that things change,” he continued. “It’s in Paris. It’s when the people from the regions go to Paris that the politicians listen.”

Axelle Cavalheiro, who works with disabled people, came from the Ain, near Lyon.

“We are overtaxed,” she said. “There are taxes on everything, gas.”

“At the Élysée,’’ she added, referring to the presidential palace, ‘’they spend 300,000 euros on carpeting, 10,000 a month for the hairdresser.”

Police forces stand guard during a "Yellow vests" (Gilets jaunes) protest against rising oil prices and living costs on December 8, 2018 in Paris.

ZAKARIA ABDELKAFI/AFP/Getty Images

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