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Macron holds crisis meeting over fuel tax hike

Emmanuel Macron has held an emergency meeting with senior ministers after protests over fuel tax rises turned violent and erupted into the worst unrest seen on French streets in decades.
Rushing back from the G20 meeting in Argentina to deal with the unfolding crisis, the French president met members of his cabinet in the Elysee Palace with the burnt out husks of cars smouldering just metres away.
The Guardian reports that thousands of masked protesters fought running battles with police over the weekend, setting fire to cars, banks and houses and burning makeshift barricades.
Police fired tear gas and used water cannons against demonstrators who set up road blocks and tried to approach government buildings.
France’s Interior Ministry estimates around 75,000 people took part in a third weekend of nationwide protests.
Bloomberg says the demonstrations began against higher gasoline taxes “and have now spread to other demands including cuts to politicians’ salaries”.
“It poses the most formidable challenge yet to Macron’s presidency, with the escalating violence and depth of public anger against his economic reforms catching the 40-year-old leader off-guard and battling to regain control,” says Reuters.
Sky News says social media has played “a key role in enabling hundreds of people to quickly gather in cities across France”.
While there were reports of violent clashes in Toulouse, Nantes, and Nice, the worst of the violence centred on Paris, where some demonstrators have remained peaceful, but others clashed with police and scaled the Arc de Triomphe.
One slogan scrawled on the national monument read “yellow jackets will triumph”, a reference to the fluorescent yellow vests that protesters wore to demand relief for France’s workers and have become the defining symbol of the protests.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who canceled his trip to a climate conference Poland today, said on Saturday that the level of violence was “rarely seen before”, with French commentators agreeing it is the most extensive civil unrest in Paris since the May 1968 student uprisings.
More than 100 people were injured in the capital, including 23 members of the security forces, while 400 people have been arrested.
Police said another person died in the protests bringing the number of fatalities since the demonstrations started more than two weeks ago to three.
On Sunday Macron visited the graffiti-damaged Arc de Triomphe and vowed that those responsible for the violence and damages will pay for their actions.
Speaking to reports in Buenos Aires before flying back, he said: “What has happened in Paris today is not the pacific expression of a legitimate anger. The culprits of those violent acts don’t want change, don’t seek improvement, they want chaos.”
By last night, the capital was calm, The Local reports, “but as groups of workers moved around cleaning up the mess from the previous day, the scale of the destruction became clear”.
Around famous areas including the Champs-Elysees, the Louvre museum, the Opera and Place Vendome, smashed shop windows, broken glass and the occasional burned-out car were testament to the violence.
Slogans painted along Paris’s most expensive streets on Saturday slammed the young, centrist, pro-business president as a symbol of an elite cut off from the people.
Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said Saturday’s violence was due to extremists who hijacked the protest, people who came “to loot, break and hit police forces”.
Griveaux later told Europe 1 radio that a state-of-emergency declaration, which has been called for by two police unions, was a possible option.
“We have to think about the measures that can be taken so that these incidents don’t happen again,” he said, adding “it is out of the question that each weekend becomes a meeting or ritual for violence”.
Reuters cites a French government source who said during the emergency meeting yesterday afternoon Macron did not discuss imposing a state of emergency.
They said the ministers instead spoke about adapting security forces for future protests.
Macron decided not to address the nation despite calls for him to offer immediate concessions to demonstrators.
The BBC’s Paris correspondent, Hugh Schofield, said “he may be hoping that the wanton destruction in the capital marks a turning point, and that many ordinary ‘yellow vests’ will now feel they have had enough”.
“If so, that might be a rash calculation. The bigger point is their grievances over rising taxes and falling standards of living, and they still have plenty of support,” he adds.
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