In Paris, the worst riots in a generation

Last week, after the second consecutive weekend of mass protests throughout France, I offered ten observations about these protests. This weekend saw more protest, with a significant and troubling turn towards violence.

As one of my sources in Paris puts it:

The first two weekends were marked by some conflict between the police and smallish groups of hoodlums who integrated themselves into the demonstrations, but were fairly classic for France. Yesterday was different.

The demonstrations in central Paris were by far the most violent in a generation. While many demonstrations in Paris see a certain amount of vandalism, yesterday the city witnessed something entirely different. The tourist/commercial center of city was targeted, quite intentionally, by quasi-organized and very numerous groups of rioters. (The French term is ‘casseurs’, literally ‘breakers’, but I think that ‘hoodlum’ comes closer.)

Police estimate the number of these hoodlums in the low thousands – 3000 is a number I’ve heard several times. Many came into the city from the suburbs; they began fights with the police and massive vandalism in the mid-morning, and were finally more-or-less suppressed around 10:30 last night.

Paris police said 133 people were injured, including 23 police officers, as crowds trashed the streets of the city. The rioting did not occur in impoverished outskirts, but rather in the heart of the city. My correspondent says his sister-in-law was trapped in her apartment all day, and that his wife couldn’t go shopping for his daughter’s baptism next weekend, due to crowds of drunken, violent masked men roaming the streets where you would normally buy cute little candies.

Among the questions that arise from these riots are these: (1) Who was doing the rioting and (2) Could the government have done more to prevent or contain the riots.

As to the first question, last week I said of the limited violence that had occurred:

[T]he “yellow vests,” as the main body of protesters is known, do not appear to have been responsible for the violence that broke out this weekend. This was the work of others.

Which others? The government tried to blame the violence on right-wing supporters of Marine Le Pen. However, reports I’ve heard suggest that the culprits were “les casseurs” — the breakers — anarchistic thugs who like to smash things and have no connection to Le Pen’s party. Perhaps both elements were involved.

This week, with so many more people rioting, it’s possible that some of the yellow vests (Les Gilets Jaunes) participated. Indeed, video shows some rioters wearing yellow vests, though it’s possible that thugs not associated with the movement chose to don them.

My correspondent describes the rioters as “a more-or-less equal mix of extreme-left and extreme-right participants, along with plenty of apolitical opportunists.” This seems to be the consensus.

The extent, if any, to which the Gilets Jaunes rioted has political implications. Going into the weekend, public opinion surveys indicated that the protesters were supported by around 80 percent of the public. After the riots, that number is likely to decline. If people believe that yellow vests participated in rioting to an appreciable degree, the decline may be steep.

The second question is whether the government could have done more to prevent or contain the riots. The answer is that it certainly could have done more to contains them.

Everyone knew there would be more protests this weekend. Everyone understood that these protests might well take a far more violent turn than the previous ones. The French news programs we watched were buzzing about this prospect.

Yet, by all accounts, the police were staggeringly ineffectual.

What’s the explanation for this failure? Some speculate that it was intentional, the idea being to allow the hoodlums to create well-photographed mayhem and thereby discredit the entire Gilets Jaunes movement.

As noted, the violence might have that effect. However, the government is mistaken, I think, if it believes discrediting the movement will produce a corresponding increase in good feeling about Emmanuel Macron’s administration. The government’s inability to handle predictable rioting will likely harm its standing, whatever the effect on Gilets Jaunes’.

My guess is that the woeful inadequacy of the government’s response is down to the government’s incompetence and indifference — two factors that helped spur the protest movement to begin with.

Macron was in Buenos Aires for the G20 meeting for much of last week. He arrived early and cut quite a figure at some of the city’s trendy venues (more about this an upcoming post).

Did Macron think seriously about how to handle the upcoming protests in Paris while he was posing as a rock star in Argentina? The outcome of the protests suggests he did not.

Macron presumably relied on his Minister of Interior, head of the department responsible for security issues. But, as I reported here, in a post called “Macron’s cynical cabinet reshuffle,” Macron’s brand new Interior Minister is Christophe Castaner. He ran Macron’s presidential campaign, but has no experience with national security issues that I’ve been able to discover.

I understand there are already calls for Castaner to be sacked. This puts Macron is a no-win position. He must either retain his crony and take all of the fall-out this entails, or he must fire the guy, thereby admitting that those who strongly criticize the selection were right all along.

More demonstrations may occur next week. Protesters are calling for them. Thus, Macron’s short-term problem, and France’s, is what to do in response.

I’m not sure what the response will be. I hope, however, that this time, at least, Macron will give the problem the attention it deserves and avail himself of counsel from folks who know what they are doing.

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