Riot police officers take position at the Champs Elysees avenue during a yellow vest protest Image Credit: AP

  • French authorities warned they will not tolerate illegal acts
  • 50,000 took part in Yellow Vest demonstrations all over France on Saturday

Paris - The first Yellow Vest demonstration of the new year reached a new level of violence Saturday as a government ministry building was attacked and the minister evacuated out the back door. What started two months ago as a protest over gas taxes has turned into a more general attack on the French government.

The minister, the chief government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux, told French television that Yellow Vest protesters and "men dressed in black" - the so-called casseurs, or "breakers," who have latched onto the movement - commandeered a construction vehicle and broke down the door of the Left Bank building. They then entered a courtyard and broke several windows, he said.

The rare intrusion - the last such attack on a government building by protesters was in 1999 - took place on a day of protests throughout France that started peacefully but degenerated into violence.

Some 50,000 took part in Yellow Vest demonstrations all over France, officials said Saturday, up from last weekend's 29,000. Over 3,000 turned out in Paris.

A man carries a wooden cross with the words "No social peace without equal sharing, the people is not a milk cow" in front of Paris City Hall Image Credit: AFP

The numbers were down sharply from the protest's first weeks, but still represent a significant national turnout, especially as a majority of French continue to support the movement, despite repeated outbreaks of violence.

The Yellow Vest movement, which takes its name from the fluorescent hazard vests adopted by the protesters as a sign of economic distress, began as an outcry over rising fuel taxes and expanded into a broad campaign over money woes.


Demonstrations all over France on Saturday

Near the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, police used tear gas and flash balls to block hundreds of protesters. Video posted to social media showed protesters fighting hand to hand with club-wielding police officers. Protesters dragged two officers to the ground and kicked them repeatedly, the video showed.

On the Champs Elysees, which was closed to traffic for hours, protesters threw rocks at police and officers used a water cannon to disperse the crowd.

France's "yellow vest" protestors were back on the streets again as a government spokesman denounced those still protesting as hard-liners who wanted only to bring down the government. Image Credit: AFP

Scooters and a car were burned along one of the capital's symbols of wealth and prestige, the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Protesters and police clashed on a pedestrian bridge linking the two banks of the Seine, a span heavily visited by tourists.

Underscoring the seriousness of Saturday's protests, President Emmanuel Macron reacted sharply and quickly on Twitter. "Once again, the republic was attacked with extreme violence - its guardians, its representatives, its symbols," Macron wrote.

Skirmishes also broke out between police and protesters in major cities in western France, including Nantes, Bordeaux and Caen. In Rennes, the capital of Brittany, protesters broke a door to city hall. In Toulouse, 2,000 people took to the streets. Paving stones were thrown at police and highways were blocked.

But it was in Paris that the protests broke new ground with the attack on the ministry building along Rue de Grenelle, the heart of official France, where a number of important government offices are located.

A shaken-looking Griveaux was interviewed on French television after he was evacuated from his offices.

"It wasn't me who was attacked, it was the republic" and "the house of France," he said.

Griveaux, the government's most familiar face on television, has also been the most aggressive in adopting Macron's harsh new line against the protest movement. In a New Year's address, Macron vowed to restore order "without compromise."

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On Friday, Griveaux declared that the Yellow Vest movement had become "the province of agitators who want upheaval, and, at bottom, to overthrow the government." A watchword of the protest movement has been a demand that Macron resign.

A Yellow Vest leader, Eric Drouet, was arrested this past week on charges of organizing an undeclared demonstration, setting off concerns of a backlash that would re-energize the demonstrations.

The weeks of unrest have pressured Macron to act. In mid-December, he scrapped a contentious fuel tax increase and promised extra cash for minimum wage earners and tax cuts for pensioners.